did bill clinton accelerate black mass incarceration? yes, but he did put a bunch of white people in prison to even it out
Pam Oliver has a fascinating post that empirically investigates incarceration trends during Clinton 1 era (1993-2001). It’s an impressive post. Professor Oliver pulls up a lot of data on overall incarceration rates and breaks it down by race. You should read it yourself, but here is my summary, diagrams are from her article:
- Imprisonment rates, overall, kept on increasing during the entire Clinton 1 presidency.
- By race, Black imprisonment rates increased till about 2000 and then plateaued. It started at 75/100,000 and then peaked around 200 per 100,000 and then stabilized. There are huge increases, in rates, for Whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Asian rates seem to be stable.
- The story of racial disparity is a bit more complex. Roughly speaking, the Blackness of the prison population peaked around 1995 (see below). Then the Black/White ratio in prisons began to decline.
My interpretation. First, you have to distinguish between between absolute and relative effects. To be blunt, Black mass incarceration in absolute terms unequivocally increased during the Clinton 1 years. Period. Perhaps the only qualifier is that it eventually stabilized, but the Black imprisonment rate never declined or even remotely went back to the levels of the 1980s or early 1990s. Mass incarceration was built in the 1980s and 1990s and it was here to stay.
The real question is why it stabilized. One hypothesis is that it was a policy effect. Perhaps in the late-1990s, there were policy changed that took effect circa 2000. A second hypothesis is that the prison system became saturated and there weren’t any more people to imprison from that population. Professor Oliver’s data are not enough to settle the question.
Second, the real story is in relative rates. Imprisonment became a much more equal system in the 1990s. In other words, prison shifted from being a Black institution to more of an all American institution. My hypothesis is that the drug war machine simply reached its limit in imprisoning Black and expanded by targeted low income white.
In this data, the American prison system appears as a hungry beast, ruthlessly scooping up low SES populations one at a time. After being built in the 1950s and 1960s by liberal reformers, the American justice system now had the power to quickly and swiftly punish people. In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican and Democratic administrations turned this machine on urban blacks and went unstopped until the early 2000s. The machine then turned to poor whites in the 1990s and a similar machine was built to imprison and deport Mexican and Central American migrants.
Francis Fukuyama wrote that we reached the end of history because liberal capitalism won over its socialist and fascist competitors. The sad truth is that the history must continue and the next chapter will be the struggle to liberate the world’s people from predatory prison states.