Why We Incarcerate

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. This month, each fellow has been charged by fellowship director Reid Cramer to explain why anyone, but especially millennials, should care about the specific policy interests they’re passionate about.

I am a public policy person by trade, which means I’ve been taught things like problem definition, policy design, implementation, and evaluation. When policy people like me are asked to think about mass incarceration, we tend to talk about measurable things: recidivism, overcriminalization, racial disparities, violent crime statistics, sentencing practices, and the cost of incarceration to taxpayers.

If folks like me are especially good at our jobs, which involves identifying the causal mechanisms which produce public policy issues, we’ll also talk about voter disenfranchisement, economic inequality, access to social services, healthcare, education, and policing. But what often remains out of the policy person’s purview are less measurable things, like our normative assumptions on punishment and the significance history bears on it.

Reginald Dwayne Betts meditates on these themes in his book of poetry, Bastards of the Reagan Era. Betts — a father, husband, poet, lawyer, and current Yale Law PhD candidate — was tried as an adult at age 16 for carjacking. In 1996, he was sentenced to eight years and three months in prison. Many of his poems take place during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the period of time in which scholars like Michelle Alexander have identified President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs fueled the mass incarceration of Black men. His poetry details Black boyhood within the confines of Reagan’s D.C. and an American prison, capturing the inner-life of a person experiencing social death and a personalized analysis of mass incarceration.

I read it over the holiday break certain I wasn’t acquainted with enough poetry to fully appreciate his lyricism or use of metaphors. Nonetheless, I gained an understanding of mass incarceration that no number of statistics or op-eds could articulate. What was especially surprising to me were his musings on intergenerational differences in understanding incarceration.

There is a stanza in the book’s namesake poem that acknowledges the normalization of incarceration among the younger men in prison:

Old heads here say these chains and cells and walls,
State numbers, years and years and years upon
Years and years ain’t nothing but Jim Crow.
They say it’s slavery. The younguns damn
Near think it’s normal though, a fucked up normal.

This prompted me to think of the sociohistorical shifts millennials like myself were not alive to see, shifts that might lead us to have ‘fucked up’ understandings of pressing policy and human rights issues like mass incarceration. I was less than a year old when criminologist and political scientist John DiIulio penned a magazine article titled The Coming of the Super-Predator in which he argued the United States was sitting on a “crime bomb” because a generation of children raised in moral poverty were due to mature into hardened, remorseless adults. He concludes by stating that policymakers have “little choice but to pursue genuine get-tough law-enforcement strategies against the super-predators,” but that future generations can be saved by the guiding principle, “Build churches, not jails."

Today, DiIulio — along with anyone who earnestly used the word “super-predator” in the 90s — is implicated in the rise of state initiatives to move children involved in the justice system -- like 16-year-old Betts -- into adult prisons in the last decade of the 20th century. Millennials like me discredited DiIulio’s theory over time: we grew up with divorced parents at uncomfortably high numbers and were less connected to religious institutions -- two independent variables he identified as the recipe for a super-predator -- yet the crime rate fell as we came of age. Dramatically.

Many of us who care about human rights might read the history of mass incarceration as one in which we allowed ourselves to become entangled in a pseudoscientific and racist theory, and now the travesty is that we have locked up millions of people who held talent the caliber of Dwayne Betts. The underlying assumption, the “fucked up normal” idea persists, though -- that what makes a person deserving of freedom is their innocence.

If my generation is to undertake meaningful criminal justice reform, we must dare to center the communities previous generations have been content to treat as disposable. We must resist the urge to be as remorseless and hardened as the policymakers of yesteryear, who assumed caging children were acceptable responses to violence. This means approaching the issue of mass incarceration as not a simple task of cherry-picking all the “good” people we accidentally locked up, but confronting what statistics have failed to capture; that locking people away is as inefficient as it is humane. To do this, we must commit to equal weight to policy innovation and to lived experience.


Myacah Sampson is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy program. Sampson is from Farmington, N.M. She holds a B.A. in public policy and ethnic studies from Brown University.