Mass Incarceration And The ‘Overfederalization’ Of Crime

America’s mass incarceration is the bastard child of many. Among them: racism, the War on Drugs (itself a racist business), the evisceration of the Constitution through ideological interpretive strategies, prosecutorial misconduct, police brutality, and so on. Yet other culprits may be found elsewhere, in other precincts of the legal and political infrastructure of the nation.

In ‘The Balance of Power Between The Federal Government and the States’ (in: Alan Brinkley, Nelson W. Polsby, Kathleen M. Sullivan eds., New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution, WW. Norton, New York, 1997), Kathleen M. Sullivan writes:

[T]here may be reason for the courts to draw outer limits to federal power when the structural, political, and cultural safeguards of federalism break down and the federal government encroaches needlessly upon areas traditionally and sensibly regulated by the states. The worst example in our recent politics is the overfederalization of crime. The Constitution names only three crimes: counterfeiting coins or securities, piracy on the high seas, and treason. But Congress has created more than three thousand federal crimes under the power to regulate interstate commerce. There are many crimes that should be federal, such as bombing federal buildings or sending explosives through the mail. But should it also be a federal crime to grow marijuana at home or to hijack a car around the corner? Federal crimes have proliferated not because it is good crime policy but because it is good politics: as Chief Justice Rehnquist has observed, “the political combination of creating a federal offense and attaching a mandatory minimum sentence has become a veritable siren song for Congress,” loud enough to drown out any careful consideration of the comparative advantages of state and federal crime control.

Shifting crime control from the states to the federal government in purely local cases diverts the work of federal investigators, prosecutors, and judges from areas of greater federal need. It also fills federal prisons with non-violent and first-time offenders who occupy space that could better be used for violent, career criminals whose operations cross state lines. There is no reason why the new federal crimes may not be handled by the states, as they have been traditionally, unless they involve multistate enterprises or intrastate enterprises so vast as to overwhelm the resources of state authorities.

The federalization of a particular crime acts as a ‘promotion’ of sorts: it elevates the perceived undesirability and dangerousness of the crime; it thus clears the way for harsher sentencing. As Rehnquist’s remark above suggests, the legal system’s response to a particular crime may be viewed as qualitatively and quantitatively inferior till the time it federalizes it and adds a harsh minimum sentence; only such a combination will assuage the retributivist impulse that so seems to animate the punishment policies of our penal system. Moreover, the current state of affairs lends itself to a situation where a conservatively inclined Supreme Court could, under the guise of tilting this balance of power back to the states, strike down progressive legislation. As Martin Garbus noted in Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law (Henry Holt, New York, 2002, pp. 128-130) the Supreme Court struck down, precisely as part of an ideological anti-federalist strategy, in United States vs. Lopez“the first United States Supreme Court case since the New Deal to set limits to Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution“, an act of Congress criminalizing possession of a handgun at school.

The Supreme Court’s Commerce clause rulings helped unite the nation, but as the history of mass incarceration shows, it has helped create a nation within a nation too, one locked up and discriminated against for life.

 

‘A Manual For The Police On How To Conduct Beatings’

Leonard Strickland was beaten to death; in jail, by prison guards. Those who did so, and those who supervised them, were secure in the knowledge that very little would be, and could be, done to bring them to justice. History and the law is on their side.

In 1992, in one of Clarence Thomas‘ earliest cases on the Supreme Court, Hudson v. McMillian, Thomas found himself on the losing side in a 7-2 decision. Keith Hudson, an inmate who had suffered a vicious beating at Angola Prison, had filed suit in a federal court, claiming violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. He won $800 in damages as the judge found he had been beaten “maliciously, unnecessarily, and wantonly.” On appeal, the case had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the decision was “cautiously” affirmed with only Antonin Scalia and Thomas dissenting.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor distinguished this case from “those cases where deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s health is not a violation unless there is serious injury.” The relevant test was “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” (Note the ‘good faith’ exception.)

Thomas, in his dissent, claimed that “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’….The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation.” Thomas based his decision on: the culture and values of the eighteenth century, the history of the cruel and unusual punishment clause, the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying convention debates, and of course, the text of the Constitution. He noted the Supreme Court had, for a very long period in American history, rejected all “conditions of complaint ” claims and not held the cruel and unusual punishment clause relevant to prison conditions. He concluded that “Today’s expansion of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause beyond all bounds of history and precedent is…yet another manifestation of the pervasive view that the Federal Constitution must address all ills in our society….[including] any hardship that might befall a prisoner during incarceration.” Thomas went on to suggest that older cases affirming prisoners’ claims of beatings and torture should be overturned.

Scalia and Thomas lost, but they set the stage for what followed.

In 1996, thanks to extensive lobbying by William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who, though impatient with prisoners rights claims, for tactical reasons had earlier joined the Hudson v. McMillian majority, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, stating prisoners cannot recover damages under the cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause if there is “no permanent damage.” Prisoners cannot recover for pain and suffering even if the beating is “long, brutal, malicious, and wanton.” The Prison Litigation Reform Act was, as Martin Garbus claims, a “a manual for the police on how to conduct beatings and not get sued.”

The immorality and brutality of our prison system is scaffolded by our nation’s laws.

Note: This post is cribbed from Martin Garbus’ Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law, Henry Holt, New York, 2002, pp. 74-75.