From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

Harvard University Press, Spring 2016

In the United States today, one in every 31 adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men. How did the “land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Challenging the belief that America’s prison problem originated with the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, Elizabeth Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to an ironic source: the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society at the height of the civil rights era.

Johnson’s War on Poverty policies sought to foster equality and economic opportunity. But these initiatives were also rooted in widely shared assumptions about African Americans’ role in urban disorder, which prompted Johnson to call for a simultaneous War on Crime. The 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act empowered the national government to take a direct role in militarizing local police. Federal anticrime funding soon incentivized social service providers to ally with police departments, courts, and prisons. Under Richard Nixon and his successors, welfare programs fell by the wayside while investment in policing and punishment expanded. Anticipating future crime, policy makers urged states to build new prisons and introduced law enforcement measures into urban schools and public housing, turning neighborhoods into targets of police surveillance.

By the 1980s, crime control and incarceration dominated national responses to poverty and inequality. The initiatives of that decade were less a sharp departure than the full realization of the punitive transformation of urban policy implemented by Republicans and Democrats alike since the 1960s.

Reviews

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime requires slow and careful reading for anyone seeking to grasp the full implications of this exceedingly well-researched work… The book is vivid with detail and sharp analysis… Hinton’s book is more than an argument; it is a revelation… There are moments that will make your skin crawl… This is history, but the implications for today are striking. Readers will learn how the militarization of the police that we’ve witnessed in Ferguson and elsewhere had roots in the 1960s… A reader cannot help reckoning with the truth that the problem of police brutality and mass incarceration won’t be remedied with technology and training. Those of us who believe in the principles of democracy and justice would do well to witness, as detailed in Hinton’s pages, the shameful theft of liberty in this so-called land of the free.—Imani Perry, The New York Times Book Review

"The richest historical chronicle written to date of how the War on Crime introduced federal funding and priorities to the policing of urban African American communities. It is a story that anyone concerned about how mass incarceration developed and how we might end it must read."- Kelly Lytle Hernandez, The Boston Review

“Hinton’s careful excavation of the bipartisan federal drivers of mass incarceration is a significant contribution to the scholarly literature… Hinton challenges the prevailing understanding of mass incarceration’s roots… Hinton has written a work of history, but most readers will see its contemporary implications as clearly as she does. Having shown how federal policy helped drive up the number of people incarcerated by or under the supervision of the criminal-justice system, she enables us to imagine how it might help bring the numbers down.”—James Forman, Jr., The Nation

An extraordinary and important new book.—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

Hinton’s book constitutes the most comprehensive analysis of the historical roots of mass incarceration to date. Those wanting to deepen the understanding of this history that they may have gained from The New Jim Crow, the Golden Gulag and The First Civil Right would do well to seriously engage this wonderful work.—James Kilgore, Truthout

"Hinton’s cautionary tale is a must read for activists." Tony Platt, Punishment and Society

Hinton’s well-researched book is filled with historical anecdotes painting a colorful picture of the nation’s persistent struggle with crime since President Johnson coined the phrase ‘War on Crime’ more than fifty years ago… From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime is smart, engaging, and well-argued.—Lauren-Brooke Eisen, National Review

A clear-eyed and timely book, it traces the country’s cannibalistic prison industrial complex back to the social welfare programs created by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. This history is heartbreaking, but it is one that affects an enormous percentage of the country… Read it and vote—especially for the state legislators, judges, and district attorneys who exert the greatest influence over the system.—Molly McArdle, Brooklyn Magazine

“A magisterial new history.—Steven W. Thrasher, The Guardian

At a moment when policing’s impact on African Americans and mass incarceration have again become topic of national conversation, Hinton’s book is significant for its reminder that both liberals and conservatives share the blame.—Jeff Guo, The Washington Post blog

Readers will appreciate Hinton’s archival deep dive into the various and successive congressional acts responsible, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not, for what amounts in her terms to criminalizing poverty. She discusses the prevailing social science theories that informed those laws…and frequently cites official reports and informal intergovernmental communications that expose the policymakers’ thinking. General readers will be appalled at her portrayal of outrageous police practices.Kirkus Reviews

An outstanding book—clear, compelling, and essential. Hinton excavates the deep roots of police militarization, surveillance of minority communities, and the punitive shift in urban policy. Her argument that liberals were key architects of the war on crime is a necessary and even urgent corrective to conventional thinking about mass incarceration.—Matthew Lassiter, author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South

A superb work that is a major and timely contribution to the history of mass incarceration. It powerfully resets and sharpens the debate among scholars on the interaction of federal and state dynamics in shaping the modern carceral state.—Jonathan Simon, author of Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America