How did the United States become the world’s biggest jailer? Most accounts of the rise of mass incarceration begin with Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, who gained political advantage in the 1960s through racially coded “law and order” electoral campaigns. Republican dominance of the crime issue continued with Ronald Reagan, who aggressively pursued longer prison sentences as part of the War on Drugs, and George H.W. Bush, whose Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis lives on in race-baiting infamy. While Democrats play a role in this story, they do so belatedly and defensively, with Bill Clinton’s support for “tough on crime” laws in the 1990s finally neutralizing the Republican advantage on the issue.
In From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, Harvard University historian Elizabeth Hinton argues that this familiar narrative lets Democrats and liberals off the hook too easily. “As the product of one of the most ambitious liberal welfare programs in American history,” Hinton notes, “the rise of punitive federal policy over the last fifty years is a thoroughly bipartisan story.” In fact, she continues, “crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.”
Hinton makes her case by tracing the evolution of federal law, beginning with President John F. Kennedy’s support for the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961. The legislation, which funded initiatives like job training, medical care, and tutoring programs, seems far from punitive. But Hinton lodges a series of objections, including the law’s assumption that the residents of black ghettoes were pathological, that community-based anticrime efforts in these neighborhoods were flawed, and that salvation depended on the intervention of government social workers and other professionals. Worst of all, she argues, the Kennedy administration used its programs to introduce “soft surveillance” in poor communities. For example, the group Mobilization for Youth ran two coffeehouses for gang-affiliated and other disadvantaged young people on New York City’s Lower East Side. While its activities seem benign—photography and theater classes, chess and checkers—Hinton sees an ulterior motive at work: “Beneath the seemingly natural setting of the coffeehouse was a carefully planned neighborhood center that made it possible for staff to watch troublesome teenagers while simultaneously providing social welfare services.”
Though Hinton is critical of Kennedy, the bigger villain in her story is Lyndon Johnson, whose administration made the fateful turn away from its own War on Poverty and toward the War on Crime. Johnson pushed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965, which Hinton identifies as the crime war’s opening salvo. The act, which sailed through Congress and was enacted just one month after the Watts uprising, authorized the federal government to help states fight what Johnson called “a war within our own boundaries.” Because wars need soldiers, and soldiers need weapons, it wasn’t long before the federal government began directing funds to local police to buy tanks, military-grade weapons, and helicopters.