In the Book, Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World, Peter K. Enns attempts to explain the rise in mass incarceration over the past 60 years . While Chapter 1 introduces the topic and and Chapter 7 concludes the book, Chapters 2 through 6 examine several different factors in order to answer the question, what has caused the rise in mass incarceration? First, Chapter 2, “A Forgiving or a Punitive Public” provides an overview of the relationship between the incarceration rate and the public’s punitiveness. Using a survey from Gallup (AIPO) and Harris, the author measures the public’s punitive attitudes towards criminal justice over time and finds that the public has become more harsh towards criminal justice over the past four decades however, in recent times, punitive attitudes have slightly receded. In Chapter 3, “Who Led Whom?” Enns looks at if politicians are more likely to lead or follow the public on criminal justice issues. By examining public attitudes during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, President Johnson’s shift on crime, and Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, Enns finds that Nixon and Goldwater did not push crime onto the national agenda but rather reacted to the public’s attitudes. Furthermore, the findings in Chapter 3 suggest that public concern with crime preceded political elites concern. In Chapter 4, “Examining the Public’s Punitiveness,” the author attempts to answer the question “why have public attitudes shifted over time” by examining the potential influence of TV crime dramas, news coverage of time, and political rhetoric. Moreover, Enns finds that news coverage of true criminal activity is the primary factor driving the public’s punitiveness on crime, because “as crime rates rose in the 1960’s and 70’s, news coverage of crime increased, and public punitiveness on crime followed” (16). Enns also analyses six different from newspapers from 1950 to today in Chapter 4 and finds that all papers similarly reported on crime and their coverage closely paralleled national crime rates.
While Chapters 2, 3, and 4, establish that the public’s punitiveness is influenced by news coverage of shifting crime rates, influences the agenda’s of political elites, and has shifted over time, Chapters 5, “Democracy at Work? Public Opinion and Mass Incarceration,” and Chapter 6, “Punitive Politics in the States,” examine the relationship between public’s punitiveness and incarceration rates. Furthermore, Chapter 5, looks at the relationship between public’s harshness on crime national incarceration rates and finds that public’s punitiveness is the most important predictor of changes in the incarceration rate. In addition, Chapter 6 examines the effects of the public’s punitiveness on state incarceration rates and state spending on crime. Furthermore, using the same measurement strategy as Enns & Koch 2013, 2015, Enns conducts two statistical analyses in which the dependent variable in the first analysis is the incarceration rate in each state from 1950 to present and the dependent variable in the second analysis is the percent of money that each state spent each year on corrections. After controlling for composition of state government, state crime rate, state demographic characteristics, and economic conditions in the state, Enns finds that the public’s attitudes influence both state spending on corrections and state incarceration rates.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book because Peter K. Enns suggestion that the public is to blame for the mass incarceration problem is both surprising and important in many ways. First, the results presented in Incarceration Nation are surprising because they contradict much of the previous literature on the mass incarceration problem by shifting the blame from the government to the people themselves. Furthermore, while politicians are needed in order to pass legislation that is tough on crime, Peter K. Enns brilliantly highlights that the “tough on crime” agendas of politicians are actually a result of the public’s views and opinions. In addition, the results of Incarceration Nation are important because they force myself as the reader, and the rest of the American public, to recognize and take responsibility for our role in creating this problem. While Peter K. Enn’s suggestion that the public is to blame for the mass incarceration problem is surprising and important because previous literature rarely ever blames the public, it is also surprising and important because the public rarely ever blames themselves.
In Chapter 5 of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Alexander suggests that public rarely ever blames themselves for the mass incarceration problem because they deny that a problem exists at all, which she refers to as, the “state of denial.” In The New Jim Crow, Alexander explains that several factors have contributed to the fact that the American public today does not know the truth about the incarceration problem, one of which being the fact that “those confined to prisons are out of sight and out of mind; once released, they are typically confined in ghettos” (182). In addition, the public’s “state of denial” regarding the racial injustice of mass incarceration is facilitated by fictional police dramas, “ghetto rap,” mainstream media, and music videos because these “racialized narratives tend to confirm and reinforce the prevailing public consensus that we need not care about “those people;” they deserve what they get” (183). While Alexander’s analysis is centered around the racial issue of mass incarceration, it nonetheless explains and supports why the results of Incarceration Nation are both surprising and important.
In conclusion, while the results of Incarceration Nation suggest that the public’s punitiveness has caused the mass incarceration problem, The New Jim Crow, suggests that the public does not know that they are to blame because they deny that a problem exists at all. While both readings shed light on the importance of the public in creating the mass incarceration problem, it is also important to recognize the role of the public in fixing it. Furthermore, while both books inform the public on the issues of mass incarceration and the public’s role in the creating them, it is ultimately up to the public to solve this massive problem because Incarceration Nation suggests that public opinion on crime proceeds governmental action. Although Enns’ finding that public punitiveness has slightly receded in recent times is a hopeful sign that things may change in the future, members of the public need to continue spreading awareness on the issues of mass incarceration and pressuring representatives to respond in order to truly solve this issue once and for all.
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