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Marie Gottschalk Dollars, Sense, and Penal Reform: Social Movements and the Future of the Carceral State NEARLY ON E IN EVERY H U N D R E D ADULTS IN T H E U N IT E D STATES IS IN JAIL or prison today. In a period dom inated by calls to roll back the govern­ m ent in all areas of social and economic policy, we have witnessed its massive expansion in the realm of penal policy since the 1970s. The US incarceration rate is now m ore than 737 per 100,000 people, or 5 to 12 times the rate of W estern European countries and Japan (Harrison and Beck, 2006: 2; International Center for Prison Studies, n.d.). The reach of the US carceral state extends far beyond the 2.3 m illion m en and w om en currently in prison or jail in the United States. On any given day, over 7 million people—or 1 in every 32 adults—are incarcerated or on probation or parole (Glaze and Bonczar, 2006: 1). This rate of state supervision is unparalleled in US history. These overall figures on incarceration belie the enorm ous and disproportionate impact th at this bold and unprecedented social experi­ m ent has had on certain groups in US society. Ifcurrent trends continue, one in three black m en and one in six Hispanic m en are expected to spend some tim e in jail or prison during their lives (Bonczar, 2003: 1). The num ber ofincarcerated African-American m en has grown so rapidly over the past quarter-century that more black m en are behind bars than enrolled in colleges and universities (Butterfield, 2002: A-14).1 social research Vol 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 669 Some contend th at growing public dismay over the crushing economic burden of incarcerating and m onitoring so m any people heralds the beginning of the end o f the prison boom (Bennett and Kuttner, 2003: 36). As evidence, they point to penal developm ents in the states. Severe budget deficits prom pted by the 2001 recession forced some states to close prisons and lay off guards. Dozens of states experi­ m ented with new sentencing formulas, mostly directed at nonviolent offenders.2 Fiscally conservative Republicans previously know n for being penal hard-liners cham pioned some of these recent relaxations in penal policy. This fueled speculation that law-and-order Republicans, troubled by m ounting costs, are well poised to roll back the carceral state, m uch as red-baiter Richard Nixon was ideally situated to breach the great political wall w ith the People’s Republic of China. We should be cautious, however, about assum ing th at fiscal pressures and the recent softening of public opinion sparked by the plum m eting crime rate over the past decade will autom atically forge a durable consensus th at will dism antle the carceral state.3 It was m istakenly assumed three decades ago that shared disillusionment on the right and the left w ith the rehabilitative ideal would shrink the prison population. Instead, it exploded. Criminal justice policies often confound conventional distinctions between left and right, particularly on issues related to crime victims. The relationship between political leaders, social movements, interest groups, and governing institutions is highly contingent and volatile in the case of penal policy because the left-right divide is m ore blurred and because of certain institutional features of the US criminal justice system and welfare state.4 W hile economic arguments against the carceral state are im por­ tant and compelling, they have their limitations. If properly pitched, they can help forge a consensus to reverse the prison boom. But they can also be used to propel mean-spirited budget cuts that do not significantly reduce the size of the prison population—or save m uch money—but do render life in prison and life after prison leaner and meaner. Criminal justice reform to reverse the prison boom is a highly fragile project th at cannot be underw ritten prim arily by fiscal concerns. W ithout 670 social research some broader vision and m ovem ent for change...


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