It’s probably the most important unexplained phenomenon in the world: mass incarceration.

Most people think mass incarceration in America started in the late 20th century.  I guess it depends on what you mean by mass incarceration.   If you’re talking about exponentially growing incarceration, that happened throughout the 20th century.

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Sources: 1850-1970: Trends in Incarceration in the United States since 1880: A Summary of Reported Rates and the Distribution of Offenses. Margaret Cahalan. Crime Delinquency. 1979. 1980-2000: Bureau of Justice Statistics Correctional Surveys (The National Prisoner Statistics Program, Annual Survey of Jails, Annual Probation Survey, and Annual Parole Survey)

Meanwhile, this century-long exponential increase in incarceration didn’t really happen anywhere outside of the United States, so now the United States has significantly more prisoners than any other country.  One quarter of all the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  You probably know all that.

It’s not completely unexplained.  Scholars writing in the 1950s about the dramatic rise in incarceration that happened in the 20s and 30s, said the same things that modern scholars say about the more recent increases – that it was due to changes in law,  not increases in crime.  Furthermore, most experts today believe increasing incarceration was the purpose of the new laws; that’s what they were designed to do.  Increasing incarceration is what the lawmakers wanted.  We just don’t know why they wanted it.  

We know they weren’t trying to fight crime.  We know they pursued these tougher laws because they expected to receive some kind of personal, political benefit by doing so.   But nobody has been able to figure out what that benefit is.  So that’s what is unexplained about mass incarceration.  How do American lawmakers benefit from incarceration, and why doesn’t the benefit affect lawmakers in other countries?  

The purpose of this website is to prove that the explanation for all of this is prisoner disenfranchisement.

Prisoner disenfranchisement literally turns prisoners into a source of political power.  It lets lawmakers generate power for themselves by putting people in prison.  

In a sense, prisoner disenfranchisement lets lawmakers collect prisoners instead of votes.   Constituents who can’t vote, can’t vote you out of office.  They can be exploited for the benefit of the constituents who can vote.  And since all voting districts are supposed to have the same number of people, the more prisoners there are in a district, the fewer voting-eligible people there can be. So, the more prisoners a lawmaker has in his district, the more people he can exploit, and the fewer he needs to keep happy to win reelection. They call it prison-based gerrymandering.  In small towns with multiple prisons the effect can be very strong.

Of course, the benefit goes away if the prisoners go away.  If the local prisons close, when the district lines are redrawn the prisoners are replaced with people who can vote.  Worse yet, without the prisoners there may no longer be enough people in the area to qualify as a district, so the district will cease to exist and the lawmakers who represent the area lose their jobs for sure.

Prisoner disenfranchisement therefore creates a class of lawmakers who depend on incarceration.  They need their prisoners.

This does two things.

1.  It biases these lawmakers in favor of policies likely to increase incarceration. 

Their dependency on incarceration distorts their judgment on issues of criminal justice.  They convince themselves the laws need to be tougher, whether they do or not. 

2.  It creates a positive feedback mechanism.

Eventually they succeed in changing the law, and the prison population goes up.  The lawmakers grow more powerful, and every time a new town gets its first prison, a whole new set of prisoner-dependant lawmakers is born.  This makes it easier to pass more laws that increase incarceration even further, resulting in a vicious cycle and an exponential increase in incarceration.

The point is not that the laws that pushed the American prison population up were all written by lawmakers who benefit from prison-based gerrymandering.  Nor am I saying that anybody has been consciously putting people in prison just to help themselves stay in office.  The point is this: the benefits of prisoner-disenfranchisement bias lawmakers in favor of policies likely to increase incarceration.   And since there is no opposing bias – nobody receives any gerrymandering-like effect by letting people out of prison – the result is an overall bias, a preference throughout the United States, for policies likely to increase incarceration, over those likely to decrease it. Consequently, laws likely to increase incarceration tend to pass no matter who originally sponsored them or what their motivation was.

And it’s easy to see how this phenomenon infuses racism into the criminal justice system.  Policies that focus their increased punishment on minorities face less resistance in the legislatures than laws that affect everybody, because, obviously, there are fewer minorities in the legislatures.  Even the lawmakers who benefit from incarceration don’t want to incarcerate their own family members, so laws and enforcement policies that target minorities have an easier time passing than those that don’t.  Consequently, racially-targeted laws proliferated faster than laws that affect the general public, resulting in ever-growing racial disparities throughout the penal system.

This is not just speculation.

There is strong evidence that the benefit of incarceration comes from prisoner disenfranchisement, just as described above.  First of all, there is a world-wide correlation between prisoner disenfranchisement and elevated incarceration rates.

Many countries disenfranchise prisoners to some extent, but nobody does it like The U.S.A. In the U.S., 48 states ban virtually everyone in prison from voting, and in most states the ban lasts post release – throughout parole or probation, or even permanently. No other country does that. Most European countries allow prisoners to vote. Some countries ban some of their prisoners from voting. For example, France only disenfranchises prisoners convicted of election offenses and abuses of power.

Generally speaking, the stricter the disenfranchisement law, the higher the incarceration rate. Nations with the most restrictive disenfranchisement policies have far higher incarceration rates than those that don’t. Nations that disenfranchise all prisoners, like the U.S., have the highest. The only Western European countries that ban all prisoners from voting the way the U.S. does are England and Wales.  England and Wales have the most punitive criminal justice systems in western Europe, the highest incarceration rates, and they also have large racial disparities throughout their penal systems, just like the U.S.  Everything that has happened to the American criminal justice system is also happening in England and Wales.  However, the problem is worse in the United States because it has been happening for a longer period of time.

This phenomenon only occurs in countries that distribute government representation on a per person basis.  The power has to come from the people, and not, for instance, from the land they own, in order for there to be any incentive to increase the local population with prisoners.  Proportional representation didn’t become a reality in Great Britain, or the rest of Western Europe, until the 20th Century, long after the United States. Even a small head start in an exponential process would result in dramatically larger results at any given time.  So at any given time, mass incarceration is much worse in the U.S. than England and Wales.

Correlation does not, by itself, establish causation, but in this case there’s no doubt about it, for several reasons.

1.      Causation explains more than just the correlation.  It explains why the increase in incarceration was exponential – because of the positive feedback mechanism created by prisoner disenfranchisement.  It also explains why the problem is so much worse in the U.S. than even England and Wales – because the cause of the increase in incarceration – the combination of proportional representation and prisoner disenfranchisement – has existed for a longer period of time.

2.     The mechanism of causation is easy to understand, and can be observed.  We can review the behavior of the lawmakers who benefit from prison-based gerrymandering, and look at the laws they write, and we can see how they make the prison population go up. In fact, that is the purpose of this website – to show you the causation in action. 

3.     As I mentioned before, it is already widely accepted that mass incarceration is caused by changes in law; it’s just the motivation for those changes that remains elusive.  Clearly, the international correlation between prisoner disenfranchisement and elevated incarceration rates is confirmation that prisoner disenfranchisement provides that motivation, just as it seems to, based on the behavior of the lawmakers themselves.

Read Backyard Prisoners to see how prisoner disenfranchisement motivates lawmakers to collect prisoners.  Read Rotten Boroughs to see how such lawmakers alter the laws to make the prison population go up. 

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