Mass incarceration’s racialized roots were laid during the era of slavery, yet found Constitutional backing in the immediate post-Civil War era. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, its infamous clause, “except as punishment for a crime,” ensured the continued criminalization of black men and women following emancipation. Through Convict Leasing, Debt Peonage and manipulative share-cropping practices, opportunistic land-owners, politicians, industrialists and financiers used these systems to criminalize hundreds of thousands of African Americans and exploit Black labor well into the 20th century.
As rural Black laborers and families migrated to northern cities to flee the racial violence and criminalization engendered by Convict-Leasing and Jim Crow, systems of urban criminalization began to take shape. Progressive Era social scientists in northern cities used crime statistics and census data to affirm Black criminality. These rationalizations served to justify increased policing, setting in motion the system by which urban spaces would become hyper-criminalized. Furthermore, the state did not define African Americans alone as criminals. For the first time, the Immigration Act of 1924 officially established the category of “illegal alien.” The state then used this categorization to police the movement and control the labor of people from (or assumed to be from) Mexico and Asian nations. By the mid-20th century, federally subsidized programs of suburbanization and urban renewal cemented racial segregation, producing racialized patterns of suburban investment and urban disinvestment that have shaped Milwaukee and other metropolitan areas.
Social and Economic Inequities Fuel Health Inequities
Government officials whose public statements and political platforms often proclaim their ability to be “tough(er) on crime”– tend to frame questions of justice and incarceration as a delicate balance between community “security” and economics. They try to simultaneously achieve “safety” at the lowest cost. Much research in criminology and public health also tends to reinforce the idea that there is such a policy trade-off. Yet, both of these dominant frameworks tend to treat crime as an objective attribute of particular people and neighborhoods.
In doing so, they fail to treat the process of criminalization — of making particular acts into crimes that should be regulated by policing — as a deeply political one tied to histories of controlling Black, Brown, and poor people. These narratives are ill-equipped to end the crisis of mass criminalization because they overlook the harms of racial, class, and gender inequality, which are only deepened by mass criminalization.
Growing bipartisan concern over mass incarceration and the burden that corrections place on states’ budgets has led to reforms. But, a danger is that focusing on fiscal costs or non-violent offenses alone will fail to address the cumulative political and economic effects and trauma of over three decades of governing through crime. Indeed, there is a much broader conversation taking place in community meetings, universities, and the arts on how to end violence through transformative projects, how to shift resources to meeting communities’ needs for safety, dignified jobs, quality education, and healthy environments.