How the Great Society Paved the Way for Modern Mass Incarceration

Lyndon Johnson's war on crime


In the June Journal of American History—a special issue devoted to the carceral state—the Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton argues that President Lyndon Johnson reacted to the riots of the mid-1960s by reshaping his Great Society reforms, blending

Journal of American History

the opportunity, development, and training programs of the War on Poverty with the surveillance, patrol, and detention programs of Johnson's newly declared "War on Crime." This entanglement of Great Society policies allowed law enforcement officials to use methods of surveillance that overlapped with social programs—for instance, antidelinquency measures framed as equal opportunity initiatives—to effectively suffuse crime-control strategies into the everyday lives of Americans in segregated and impoverished communities. In time, the entire spectrum of domestic social programs actively participated in national law enforcement, thereby pushing the boundaries of the carceral state beyond penal institutions. By the time Johnson's Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act passed in 1968, the carceral state had already begun to metastasize into a vast network of social programs originally created to combat racial exclusion and inequality.

"During the first half of the 1960s, antipoverty programs expanded the degree of federal influence in the everyday lives of black urban Americans," Hinton writes. "By fashioning a new liberal synthesis that brought crime-control strategies under the fold of social welfare programs, federal policy makers eased the shift toward national punitive programs in the second half of the decade." In this way, LBJ helped lay "the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration."

To read the whole paper, go here. To check out the rest of the issue, go here. Naomi Murakawa's recent book The First Civil Right makes an overlapping argument; to see Reason's review of it, go here.