Do Not Pass Go

David Garland’s disturbing new book addresses the question why there are so many more people in jail in America and Britain than anywhere else. That, in any case, is its specific focus. Its broader concern is with “cultures of control,” how societies treat deviance and violence and whom they single out for what treatment. He deals with this politically sensitive subject less dramatically than Michel Foucault did in Discipline and Punish, which brought the subject into public debate in the 1970s. Garland brings a larger amount of factual information to bear, but Foucault’s influence shows in his account.

His argument is that by 1980, both countries established a new system of crime control, a system based almost exclusively on imprisonment. This system has continued unabated ever since, the current decade being the most punitive in US history. The new approach to managing crime, in Garland’s account, was an expression of the triumph of free-market political conservatism over the protest-generating upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s. What finally emerged in both countries was a highly efficient and technically controlled system of crime management directed almost exclusively at protecting crime’s potential victims instead of coping with its causes. Its principal instruments, inevitably, were swift arrest, tough sentencing, and extensive incarceration. Penal welfare and rehabilitation got lost in the process. Moreover, the transformation took place with scarcely a murmur of public protest. It seemed to escape attention, except among those it affected personally.

Here are some facts about skyrocketing imprisonment. There are approximately two million people in jail in America today, 2,166,260 at last count: more than four times as many people as thirty years ago. It is the largest number in our history. More than 500 in every 100,000 Americans are behind bars, between four and ten times the incarceration rate of any civilized country in the world. In Britain, the country with the second-steepest rise in the rate of imprisonment, the number of prisoners has climbed from about 70 per 100,000 in 1966 to 136 per 100,000 in 1998. Italy, by comparison, had 57 per 100,000 in jail in 1990, down from 79 in 1960, while Japan had halved its imprisonment rate over those same years from 66 to 32. And our incarceration practices are becoming well known, if not notorious, abroad. As witness a recent feature article in The Irish Times of Dublin (August 8, 2003): “Applying the US incarceration rate to Ireland would result in 27,500 people behind bars instead of 3,200 as at present.”

But gross numbers are only part of the story. The other part is racial imbalance. Twelve percent of African-American men between twenty and thirty-four are currently behind bars (the highest figure ever recorded by the Justice Department) compared to 1.6 percent of white men of comparable ages. And according to the same source, 28 percent of black men will be sent to jail in their lifetime.

What has …

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