Disconnect: Moral Liberalization and Mass Incarceration

Note: The following is David Courtwright’s thoughtful response to my earlier post, in which I raised some questions about his recent work.

Joe Spillane has identified a central paradox of recent American history. Why were the prisons filling up, particularly with drug offenders, when legislatures and courts were liberalizing policies on divorce, Sunday liquor sales, gambling, pornography, abortion, sodomy, and other Victorian taboos? How, as he nicely puts it, could “we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time?”

Conservatives have argued that moral liberalization and mass incarceration went hand in hand, insofar as promiscuity, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families produced more sociopathic behavior, particularly among young, unmarried men. Though much sociological evidence supports this generalization, it cannot explain the prison boom by itself. First, if society “defines deviancy down” to accommodate the increase in misconduct, the number of additional inmates will not necessarily match the number of new sociopaths. Adding prison capacity is a conscious (and usually expensive) political act. Second, contraception and abortion were also part of the moral revolution. They diminished future criminality by diminishing the number of unwanted and neglected children, a case economists John Donohue III and Steven Levitt made in a famous 2001 article. Interestingly, the abortion-crime tradeoff created a sensitive dilemma for conservative Republican politicians, many of whom were publicly pro-life but privately reluctant to see the end of legal abortion. “These guys are all fakers,” Michael Dukakis told me in an interview. “They tell their Evangelical friends they’re pro-life, and they do nothing about it.”

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