A session yesterday at the American Society of Criminology meetings in San Francisco on "Punishment, States and the Governance of Crime" offered exceptional insights into the changes in state government and politics that facilitated the rise of mass incarceration in California, Texas and Florida. Joshua Page chaired and presented a paper on "Interest Groups and Contemporary Criminal Punishment" and extension of his great research on mass incarceration and correctional workers in California soon to be out as The Toughest Beat:Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California. Michael Campbell presented "Prosecutors, Politics, and Reconstruction of the Penal Order in Texas," a piece of a dissertation that compares California and Texas. Phil Goodman presented "California's Prison Fire Camps and the Changing Nature of Punishment," a piece of his dissertation on a very little studied aspect of California's massive penal estate, and one full of clues as to how to reintegrate prisons with the rest of the state they now occupy much like tumors occupy a body. Heather Schoenfeld, presented, "Race, Institutions and Punishment in the Sunshine State," a piece of her research on the formation of mass incarceration in Florida. Mona Lynch, presented "From the Local to the Global: The Multiple Levels of Influence in the rise (and fall?) of Mass Incarceration," a paper in which she reflects on the multiple levels of institutions that have shaped mass incarceration in the separate states, including Arizona, the subject of her Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment.
The panel represents a good sample of the new state focused scholarship on mass incarceration. This research is confirming some of what we thought about the causes of mass incarceration, especially the role of prosecutors as key political actors. As Campbell notes they are a permanent institutional lobby for punishment in the legislature capable of besting the periodic emergence of opponents of excessive punishment (which exist even in Texas). But it is highlighting roles that were missed before, especially the crucial role litigation over prison conditions played in moving prisons to the top of the legislative agenda at the take off phase of mass incarceration in the early 1980s (a finding shown by Schoenfeld for Florida, by Campbell for Texas, and by Lynch for Arizona). Overall, mass incarceration (perhaps like cancer) is not one single "disease" but a family of related but distinctive maladies.
These particular studies also powerful suggest a sunbelt tilt to mass incarceration. Lynch in particular argues that the sunbelt gave us the model of warehouse incarceration at the heart of mass incarceration. It appears that early emphasis by scholars on the epistemological crises of rehabilitative penology in the 1970s may have been far less important in sun belt states that never had much commitment to rehabilitation (like Arizona), and which organized punishment along highly racialized lines decades earlier (like Florida and Texas). All this suggests that a winning strategy to dismantle mass incarceration has to play in the sun-belt and the solutions touted in states like New York, may not easily apply.
One "promising" development is the Great Recession we are experiencing which emerged from the over-leveraged real estate industry that has long shaped politics in these very sunbelt states and has now left them with severe fiscal and possibly more broadly social crises (as foreclosures erode whole communities). As these states grapple with massive economic insecurities and contracting revenues the logic of mass incarceration may begin to emerge as a subject for debate in states that are culturally predisposed against big government