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Mass incarceration, mass deportation: Twin legacies of governing through crime

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | December 23, 2013

One afflicts mostly American citizens, disproportionately those of African American and Latino backgrounds from areas of concentrated poverty, but also many white and middle class citizens who fall into the hands of police and prosecutors.  The other afflicts exclusively non-citizens living in the U.S. without federal authorization or in violation of the terms of their permission.

One results in people being kept in prisons for years and decades at a time.  The other often starts with detention that looks and feels a lot like imprisonment, and then culminates in the person’s forcible removal from the U.S. to a country in which they hold formal nationality but may have few or no connections and often face grave dangers.

One is driven largely by state and local officials, with considerable encouragement and support from the federal government.  The other is driven by the federal government, with considerable encouragement and support from state and local governments (although now also increasingly some opposition).

One is considered punishment for crimes.  The other is consider a civil action to protect the national integrity of the U.S. But despite these differences mass incarceration and mass deportation are off-spring of a common source, the U.S.  political system’s broad turn toward race-tinged fear, violence and coercion to govern American society since the 1970s (or what I call “governing through crime“).  What follows are some common features.

  • Both mass incarceration and mass deportation are rationalized on the basis that they are primarily necessary to keep Americans safe from violence.  This persists despite the fact that violent crimes in most parts of American society are there lowest level in decades, few criminologists believe that mass incarceration played a significant role in reducing violence.  And almost no credible evidence exits linking non-citizens here without federal permission to violence.
  • Both mass incarceration and mass deportation are forms of governing that operate on masses, groups, classes, and races rather than individuals.  They rely on racial profiling and rigid rules designed to remove the ability of judges or other officials to take individual or contextual circumstances into account.
  • Both mass incarceration and mass deportation (therefore) systematically deny the human dignity of individuals and result in conditions of confinement and forced removal that have been repeatedly found to violate human rights obligations of the United States under international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
  • Both mass incarceration and mass deportation deliver some of their most destructive effects to the family members of the individuals imprisoned or detained who find themselves denied parents, partners, and vital economic support despite having done broken no laws themselves. The spillover effects also diminish the freedom and dignity of whole communities who must move through life with their heads over their shoulder looking out for police or immigration enforcement officers.
  • Both mass incarceration and mass deportation remain powerful engines of destruction, despite lack of visible public support, and despite tremendous fiscal costs largely because of political calculations that any deviation from rigid punitive policies will be risky, and the resistance of powerful financial interests with great lobbying ability to policy changes that would diminish the high profits they receive from servicing the prison complex and operating many of the immigration detention centers.

As we end a year in which President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have given important signals that they are aware of the moral and human destruction of both mass incarceration and mass deportation we must endeavor to produce the kind of grass roots social movement that will demand a full dismantling of both these legacies of the era of governing through crime.

As The New York Times reports in a story today on immigration (read it here) there is an increasingly visible protest movement against mass deportation.  We need an equivalent movement against mass incarceration.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.