History Prof. Heather Ann Thompson has recently garnered attention for the success of her book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” which focuses on the history of mass incarceration and its current impact, particularly in Detroit.
In an interview, Thompson said her research has largely led her to conclude that the slow downfall and ultimate economic collapse of Detroit can be traced back to former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which, Thompson argues, started the so-called war on crime and the incentivization of incarceration that came with it.
“As important as deindustrialization and ‘white flight’ are, we have also given short shrift to the punitive turn the embrace of mass incarceration had in destroying cities like Detroit,” she said.
The Act intended to strengthen crime control programs and initiatives by providing grants for training officers and improving incarceration conditions.
Thompson said her work points to the origin of the war on crime stemming from not only racism based in the southern United States, but also a mentality many white northerners held during the Civil Rights Movement.
“To many white Detroiters, the mere presence of so many more African Americans in the wake of the Second Great Migration, who were vocal about their need for an equal share of civil resources, was threatening, dangerous and even criminal,” Thompson said. “White southerners, both ordinary citizens and elected officials, had long equated Civil Rights unrest with criminality, and when African Americans began fighting for greater equality in the North as much as in the South, this is how northern whites began to interpret their actions as well.”
While many researchers argue that the war on crime was instituted in reaction to increasing homicide and violent crime rates, Thompson said she thinks this is misleading, if not blatantly untrue.
“The murder rate had been far higher in the 1930s — as high as 9.7 per 100,000,” she said. “Indeed, if one looks at the entire 20th century, it is remarkable how much safer the 1960s were compared to previous decades.”
Thompson argued that because federal funding is allocated by need, Detroit had an incentive to boost crime figures, resulting in a much more aggressive form of policing than Detroit had seen prior to the War on Crime.
“Thanks to the intensified criminalization of urban space in the 1970s and 1980s, today, Michigan’s prison population has increased by (53.8) percent,” Thompson said.
This increase in the prison population has had a significant social impact on Detroit, including the orphaning of many of Detroit’s children, Thompson said.
“According to the Pew Foundation and the Osborne Society, by 2010, more than 2.7 million children in the United States had a parent in prison and approximately 10 million had a parent who had been incarcerated at some point in their childhood,” Thompson said.
“This experience fell disproportionately on children of color, with one in nine African-American kids experiencing this trauma compared to one in 57 white kids (with parents who have been in prison),” she added.
Increased incarceration rates have had deep economic consequences as well, making it almost impossible for a formerly convicted person to find a steady source of legal income, according to Thompson.
“Not only did employers routinely require them to reveal whether they had a criminal record, but employers also made clear that they were unlikely to hire anyone who had been convicted of a crime,” Thompson said.
Ultimately, Thompson said, the profitability of private prisons in Michigan is one of the greater causes of Detroit’s economic collapse and has played a tremendous role in the deindustrialization in the former manufacturing city.
However, she added that not only does the private sector have culpability fror the prison industry, but the government does as well.
“Detroiters lost jobs not just because companies moved their work and consumers moved their purchasing dollars into Michigan’s prisons, but also because the state was investing more money in building prisons than in building or incentivizing factories in the free world that would, in turn, employ free-world workers,” she said.
While Detroit’s recent history is complex, Thompson said continuing to conduct research like hers will help the state and the country understand the broader needs of the city and the roots of the unjust practices that have taken place.
“Ultimately, Detroit suffered much economic fallout from a now almost five-decades-long War on Crime, and if we really are to understand the dire fate of this city, we must understand the hidden as well as visible costs of the dramatic punitive turn we took as a nation in the wake of the Civil Rights ‘60s,” Thompson said.