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Jeffrey Adler: Less Crime, More Punishment

Adler3[1]Jeffrey S. Adler is professor of History and Criminology and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida. He has held research fellowships from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies, and he is the author of Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West: The Rise and Fall of Antebellum St. Louis (New York, 1991) and First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920 (Cambridge, MA, 2006) and the co-editor of African-American Mayors: Race, Politics, and the American City (Urbana, IL, 2001). Adler’s current research project examines race and lethal violence in early twentieth-century New Orleans.

His article “Less Crime, More Punishment: Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice in Early Twentieth-Century America” appears in the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.”

Could you briefly describe your article?

“Less Crime, More Punishment” explores the curious, counter-intuitive relationship between crime and punishment in early twentieth-century America; when violent crime rates were high, incarceration rates were low, and when violent crime rates tumbled, incarceration rates soared.  Drawing from my research on Chicago and New Orleans, as well as state and national data, the essay examines trends in homicide, policing, and punishment in the early twentieth century. During the first quarter of the century, lethal violence soared, more than doubling in the nation’s major urban centers.  Yet, few suspects were convicted, and prison populations remained low. Then, between 1925 and 1940, crime and punishment moved in paradoxically opposite directions.

My essay focuses particular attention on the late 1920s and the 1930s, when less crime produced more punishment. In Chicago and New Orleans, homicide rates plunged by nearly two-thirds, while the national homicide rate fell by one-third. Prison populations, however, skyrocketed, rising by 65 percent nationally, even as violent crime dropped, and more Americans were executed in 1935 than in any year in U.S. history. The essay also charts the process through which local law enforcers, especially in New Orleans, increasingly associated violent crime with African American residents and employed more aggressive policing and prosecution strategies, thereby producing an exploding African American prison population. During this period, the war on crime bore little connection to levels of crime. While the 1925-1940 rise in incarceration rates and the focus on African American crime pale in comparison to late twentieth-century shifts in criminal justice, in many ways the changes of the pre-World War II era presaged the later rise of the carceral state.

How does your topic fit into the larger history of the carceral state?

My essay locates the roots of the carceral state in the interwar period, when elected officials embraced a “war on crime,” when the criminal-justice apparatus of the government, at both the local and federal levels, expanded, when prison construction increased, when conviction rates for violent crime spiked, when prison populations swelled, and when execution rates skyrocketed.  Even as rates of violent crime plummeted, particularly among African Americans, the criminal justice system ballooned and disproportionately targeted African Americans.  Many developments typically associated with the late twentieth century, such as the expansion of penal institutions and the use of police dragnets in African American neighborhoods began during the interwar period. Although the late twentieth-century transformations occurred at a far greater scale, the recent rise of the carceral state is built on an institutional foundation forged earlier in the century. The modern disjuncture between crime and punishment, in short, eerily echoes interwar shifts in law enforcement and criminal justice.

How can other historians best incorporate your work into their teaching?

The rise of the carceral state was bound up with broader, wider processes of historical change.  Thus, instead of viewing it solely as a product of the closing decades of the twentieth century and divorcing it from larger themes, scholars might consider integrating the emergence of the carceral state into discussions of the most central facets of twentieth-century American history, including state formation, immigration, and political development. The New Deal, for example, bolstered criminal-justice institutions in ways that contributed to a surge in incarceration.  Similarly, the law-and-order crusade of the 1960s and 1970s was not the first such campaign of the century. Rather, the cultural and political currents of the 1920s and the 1930s also sparked a crime panic that transformed policing, the courts, and penal institutions—and roiled race relations and contributed to injustice and inequality in the process.   In short, the massive legal and institutional changes that forged the carceral state during the late twentieth century had deep and far-ranging roots, and students might benefit from considering this larger context.

How does your project speak to contemporary concerns about the carceral state?

“Less Crime, More Punishment” challenges two widely held assumptions about crime and public policy. First, the conventional wisdom is that economic downturns generate violence.  During the Great Depression, however, rates of homicide plummeted, even as levels of poverty and unemployment reached historic highs. More recently, the Great Recession of the early twenty-first century exacerbated poverty and triggered soaring unemployment rates but also did not produce an increase in violence. Policy makers would do well to consider the complex sources of crime and refrain from embracing ahistorical, mono-causal explanations for complex social problems. Second, my research challenges the argument, also popular among some policy makers (and voters), that “getting tough on crime” reduces violence. During the interwar period, the dramatic decrease in lethal violence preceded the surge in conviction, incarceration, and execution rates.  Legislators and law enforcers during the 1930s, for instance, embraced draconian solutions to a crime wave that had already largely ended. While the “lessons of the past” do not necessarily provide neat answers to policy questions, the historical scholarship on crime and punishment offers an important cautionary tale about efficacy of law-and-order crusades.