Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Mass Incarceration the New Eugenics?

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“Has the War on Drugs revived the 19th Century progressive crusade against ‘degenerates’?” asks Anthony Bradley in the second of this week’s Acton Commentary.

The United States currently has over 2.3 million prisoners incarcerated in federal, state, and local jails around the country. According to an April report by the Sentencing Project, that number presents a 500 percent increase in incarcerations over the past 40 years. This increase produces “prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system” despite the evidence that incarceration is not working. How did this happen? The culprit is usually identified as the failed policies associated with the War on Drugs. Because blacks are disproportionately swept up in the campaign against drugs, some scholars refer to the results of mass incarceration as the new “The New Jim Crow.” While the original intentions may have been well-meaning the long-term consequences may be worse: The War on Drugs may actually be class-based eugenics by another name.

The full text of the essay can be found here. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Marco Devon Patterson

    Awesome post!

  • Andrew Orlovsky

    What would your response be to a critic who claims that mass incarceration was the reason from the large decline in crime in America since the mid 1990s.

  • Andrew Orlovsky

    I love this quote:

    “People should be sent to prison because they are dangerous to society not because we are mad at them and want to reform them. Prisons are not churches”.

  • mike

    the percentage of blacks is relatively stable. with Hispanics pushing out some of the white population

  • Frank McClarnon

    Great article Professor Bradley! Sometimes we get a feeling about something in society not making sense. The only conclusions that I can come up with is that if a system or institution in our government is working in a way that is counterintuitive or against common sense then it must be manipulated to function that way. I don’t know how Arizona is able to keep their legal system so fair but I’m kind of skeptical of self reported statistics.

  • Hispanics are mostly white people. Discuss.

  • Aleteia

    And thus the Marxist idea of “class warfare” continues to be promoted.
    Theodor Darlimple is a British psychiatrist who looks inside the poor communities, and shows how this situation is perpetuated. I think that an intellectual such as Mr. Bradley could look more attentively into the issue of poverty and criminality, and leave out a narrative which relies on external attributions. Irresponsible people have the tendency to infer external causality: the society is at fault, the community, the Whites, the politics, the elites, etc., as if each of us does not have God given ability to make the right decisions. It is called free will.
    Dr. Ben Carson’s life is a great example. His mother was illiterate but encouraged her sons to stay out of trouble and learn seriously. These messages had their fruits. They did not cost money!
    Each community need to develop and practice healthy self-criticism. That is the first step to address the problem. Until defense mechanisms replace genuine social rhetoric, no social maturation is possible.

  • Richard Allen

    The statistics in this article are misleading by referring only to the federal prison population, which, according the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics, totaled only 193,775 (male and female) on December 31, 2013, rather than to the much larger state and federal prison population of 1,516,789 (which does not include the 800,000 or so additional prisoners in state and federal jails awaiting trial or with sentences of less than one year.) Of the combined population, 33.3 percent self-identified as white in 2013, 36.1 as black, 22 percent as Hispanic and 8 percent as “other.” Of the larger state population, only 14.0 percent of whites and 15.9 percent of blacks were imprisoned for “drug” offences, and only 4.0 percent of whites and 4.0 percent of blacks were imprisoned for mere drug possession. Moreover, of these, the median time served by those convicted only of possession upon release was 11 months for males and 8 months for females. In contrast, the percentage of state prisoners convicted of violent crimes was 53.8, and 18.8 for property crimes, who, upon release, served a median sentence of 28 months and 12 months respectively. Thus, the article’s claim that the current phenomenon of mass incarceration is mainly a result of the “failed” “War on Drugs,” is not supported by the statistics, which in fact indicate that most prisoners have indeed been “sent to prison because they are dangerous to society and not because we are mad at them and want to reform them.”