In the majority of hotly contested 2022 midterm races, tough-on-crime rhetoric is at the top of the agenda. close to 60 percent of Republican spending on campaign ads since September has concerned crime, with tens of thousands of ads running on the issue, and Democrats have responded with their own $36 million war chest. The outcome could put the U.S. in danger of entering a new era of more mass incarceration, writes Princeton University Prof. Udi Ofer in Time. Both parties are playing with fire, as the political rhetoric being deployed this election season has the potential to trigger a new surge in incarceration, as occurred following previous election cycles that starred tough-on-crime rhetoric, Ofer says. Between 1973 and2009, the nation saw an exponential growth in incarceration, from approximately 200,000 people in prisons and jails in 1973 to 2.2 million by 2009, making the U.S. the largest incarcerator in the world, with a rate 5 to 10 times higher than Western Europe and other democracies.
Along with mass incarceration came extreme racial inequities. A Black boy born in the 2000s had a one in three chance of ending up incarcerated, compared to a one in 17 chance for a white boy. Mass incarceration has contributed significantly to the racial achievement gap, poorer health outcomes in Black communities, and economic hardship for Black families. This crisis in mass incarceration, which only recently began to dip,"has roots that run deep in efforts to politicize and racialize crime," Ofer says. "Mass incarceration has been fueled by moments like the one we are living in today, where following years of gains on civil rights, a backlash ensues and crime is conflated with reforms and civil rights protests." It wasn’t until the past 10 years that a bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform pushed for an alternative approach. This movement by Democrats and Republicans has worked together to pass bipartisan reforms, such as sentencing reform in Louisiana and Oklahoma, bail reform in New Jersey and Colorado, second chance laws in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Utah, drug law reform in Oregon and Rhode Island, and much more. The prison population began to drop to 1.2 million, and the U.S. moved from first to fifth place in the global ranking of imprisonment rates, right between Cuba and Panama.