Failed Frontlash: How Liberals Furthered the Case for Mass Incarceration

The response to the Civil Rights Movement initiated one of the most punitive interventions in United States history. Beginning with the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and onward, the state took on a new role in crime and drug control. State and federal governments revised their criminal codes, imposing mandatory minimums and effectively abolishing parole. Moreover, juveniles were now incarcerated in adult prisons, chain gangs returned—as did a malicious policy of felon disenfranchisement—all while prison rates soared, increasing six-fold between 1973 and the turn of the century.

ImageCompared to its advanced industrial counterparts, the United States imprisons at least five times more of its citizens per capita. Are we inherently more criminal than other nations? Or, do we manufacture criminality? For the most part, the United States and most other human societies across time and space have always had problems with drugs and crime. This is not unique. How the United States has chosen to combat said problem, as well as its unfortunate results, are unique. Legal scholar Jonathan Simon argues that in the United States, crime has become “a, if not the, defining problem of government.” How did we get here?

Vesla Mae Weaver’s work—particularly her use of “frontlash”—offers some important clues to understanding the punitive impulse. 

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