Glen Loury’commentary on America’s correctional Leviathan came to my attention in 2009. Though I knew he taught at Brown, I didn’t realize until I watched this video that his primary discipline is economics
The economic perspective is a valuable one in approaching questions of incarceration, class, and race.
How is it, for example that most of the people who go to prison for involvement with drugs are poor and non-white? And how is it that America, with five percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of the world’s prison population?
Loury describes the American criminal justice system as “an engine for producing and reproducing racial inequality. “ In certain neighborhoods, he argues, jails and prisons are essentially “factories for producing inmates.”
The factory works by constantly exposing new generations to a culture of entrenched interaction with the prison system. Young men in these poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods tend to have few positive role models in their lives — in large part because widespread incarceration has taken such a toll on their social networks.
Young men in this setting often become enmeshed with the law themselves and get sent to prison. The percentage of such men who are from racial minorities is far disporportionate to those groups' percentage of the U.S. population as a whole.
Upon returning to the neighborhood after serving a prison term, these men (and a few women) face daunting challenges in finding proper employment. The Great Recession and its high-unemployment aftermath have only added to these challenges.
Yet the Recession has also spurred efforts in some states to reform a prison system that has become too costly to sustain. To use economic parlance, what’s needed is a change in the business model for the whole system.