Get Your Memes Right: The 1994 Crime Bill Didn’t Create Mass Incarceration

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German Lopez points out today that the 1994 crime bill wasn’t responsible for mass incarceration:

States preside over the great bulk of the US justice system. So it’s actually state policies that fueled mass incarceration….Federal criminal justice policy, including much of the 1994 crime law, focuses almost entirely on the federal system, particularly federal prisons….In the US, federal prisons house only about 13 percent of the overall prison population.

That’s true. And there’s one other thing to add to that: by 1995, when the crime bill took effect, state and federal policies had long since been committed to mass incarceration. Between 1978 and 1995 the prison population had already increased by more than 250 percent. Between 1995 and its peak in 2009, it increased only another 40 percent—and even that was due almost entirely to policies already in place.

Depending on your reading of history, mass incarceration was either (a) a reasonable response to a huge crime wave, (b) a defensible idea that got way out of hand, or (c) a racist scourge that destroyed the black community. In fact, there’s a good case that it was all three of these things: there really was a big surge in crime in the 70s and 80s that created a growing pool of violent offenders; even the defenders of mass incarceration mostly agree that it had already gone too far by the early 90s; and it’s difficult to believe that it ever would have gone as far as it did if it weren’t for the contemporary media-political inspired hysteria over black “predators” flooding our neighborhoods.

That said, whatever else the 1994 crime bill did, it didn’t create the carceral state or even give it much of a boost. That had happened many years before.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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