Dwarfing Wal-Mart


Ever wonder how many people it takes to incarcerate 2.25 million inmates? Ask Glenn Loury:

We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century…

As of 2000, 33 states had abolished limited parole (up from 17 in 1980); 24 states had introduced three-strikes laws (up from zero); and 40 states had introduced truth-in-sentencing laws (up from three). The vast majority of these changes occurred in the 1990s, as crime rates fell.

This new system of punitive ideas is aided by a new relationship between the media, the politicians, and the public. A handful of cases—in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent—get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws—such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders—and political careers are made on the basis of the public's reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.

The last bit neatly encapsulates the expansion of the category "sex offender" (just ask Genarlow Wilson), but is Loury really trying to claim that this represents a "new relationship" between media and politics? Racially charged moral panic is a hallowed tradition (see the Mann Act of 1910), the vulnerability of chaste young white women not being a concept wholly invented by Fox News. Loury focuses on drugs because it's the category of offenses most relevant to racial disparity at the moment, but the dynamic is the same as it was a century ago.

Loury's whole piece is worth a read. For a concise illustration of nearly every point Loury touches on, check out Radley Balko's telling of the Cory Maye story.

Via A&L Daily.