Monday, December 23, 2013

Mass Incarceration and Mass Deportation: Twin Legacies of Governing through Crime

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 US 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 US 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 US.  But despite these differences mass incarceration and mass deportation are off-spring of a common source, the US political system's broad turn toward race tinged fear, violence and coercion to govern American society since the 1970s (of 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 crime metrics in most parts of American society are at the 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 (quite the contrary).
  • 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 and contextual circumstances into account.
  • Both mass incarceration and mass deportation (therefore) systematically deny the human dignity of the individuals their operations inevitably target, and result in conditions of confinement and forced removal that have been repeatedly found to violate human rights obligations of the United States under our Constitution and which also offend 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 on the family members of the individuals imprisoned or detained who find themselves denied parents, partners, and vital emotional and economic support despite having broken no laws. The spillover effects also diminish the freedom and dignity of whole communities whose residents 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 current 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 imprisonment-deportation complex.

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.

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