One Way Our Prison System Is Actually Worse Than It Was in 1750

What got a person locked up – no matter what - in 1790? Piracy. Period. At the birth of the republic mandatory minimum sentences were a rare and targeted thing. Attacking and robbing ships at sea got you life, no ifs, ands or buts.


What gets you a mandatory minimum sentence today? Any one of 261 different crimes.

Princeton professor Naomi Murakawa took a look, for her book, The First Civil Right, How Liberals Built Prison America. There she chronicles how for the first two hundred years, Americans managed to get by with only a handful of mandatory minimum laws.

Those governed specific federal crimes. Refusing to testify before Congress would get you a month, bribing a federal inspector six months, forging a US seal got you a year.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, that Congress started passing mandatory minimum’s left and right, and we do mean Left and Right. Two terms of tough-on-crime Reagan and Bush Republicans added 72 new mandatory minimum statutes; Clinton’s two terms added 116.

Quoting Joe Biden in 1994, Murakawa reminds us of the liberal Democrats’ approach:

“The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties… 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic party is for 124,000 new state prison cells.”

This is the period, let’s remember, that saw black-white racial ratios among the imprisoned go from three to one to eight to one. Minimums passed during those years include a mandatory 15 year term for carrying a firearm on a third offence, and a five-year mandatory minimum for possessing five grams of crack cocaine.

The number of mandatory minimum crimes tripled between 1985 and 2000, engorging the prison system, and locking up especially women, mostly women with kids. In Murakawa’s book, the list of mandatory minimum statutes on the books today runs to 20 pages.

“The perils of post-war liberal law and order are worth recalling now,” she says, when demands for reform are loud but modest in scope. It’s not rocket science why the US has the world’s biggest prison population by far. It’s our policy of imprisoning so many people. The solution’s not kindler, gentler incarceration, or better oversight, it’s an entirely different approach.

You can watch my interview with Naomi Murakawa, on the pro-civil rights roots of the US prison state, this week on The Laura Flanders Show on KCET/LINKtv and TeleSUR and find all my interviews and reports at  LauraFlanders.com. To tell me what you think, write to Laura@LauraFlanders.com.

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