Most policy researchers continue to study the relationship between crime and incarceration. Given the politics of crime control that gave birth to mass incarceration policies this is no surprise. The Brennan Center released in February 2015, for example, the latest meta-analysis of the weak relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates. This report follows similar findings published by the National Academy of Sciences in a report, “The Growth of Incarceration: Causes and Consequences,” in September 2014. Even if consensus may be just around the corner that crime rates fell only modestly over a brief period of time in the 1990s, related to determinate sentencing changes as the Brennan Center report notes, the logic of punitive punishment and criminal behavior remain linked. In a climate of low crime rates and high financial costs of punishment, decarceration seems politically possible. The empirical evidence, the economic realities, and the politics are all moving in the same direction. But some conditions could make decarceration an unsustainable policy choice in the future, if crime rates go up or robust economic growth returns.

But there was an earlier era of penal rehabilitation, beginning in the Progressive era (1890-1933)– a decarceral moment where crime rates were symptomatic of economic inequality. Crime was less the focus than the fact of a maldistribution of social and economic resources. The most vocal and influential policy advocates of these early years expanded therapeutic, pro-social initiatives in the interest of what we might call public health at the time. They built alternatives to incarceration, engaged in nascent forms of restorative justice, and placed limits on the instrumental use of prison for retribution and social control. That these efforts were profoundly racialized and largely excluded African Americans helps understand the demographics of the carceral state today.

At the same time, placing this history alongside current decarceration efforts restores a chapter from the past that shows what is possible. The Progressive legacy has the possibility of working on behalf of people of color in ways that heretofore have been discredited by forty-year old policy assumptions that “nothing works.” History says otherwise.

About the author

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ph.D. is the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Harlem-based branch of the New York Public Library system and one of the world’s leading research facilities dedicated to the history of the African diaspora.