04/30/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Uncle Sam (Should) Want You!: National Service vs. Mass Incarceration

Perhaps the Era of Mass Incarceration is coming to a close. As Eduardo Porter notes in his excellent column in the New York Times (April 30, 2014) more and more states are re-examining their incarceration policies, reducing sentences, reclassifying certain kinds of offenses and even experimenting with alternatives to jail. It is long overdue.

Starting in the mid-1970s Americans more or less gave up on the idea of using the penal system for rehabilitation and decided instead that criminals should be locked up and keys thrown away. We brought back the death penalty, created systems of sentencing guidelines which have all but eliminated judicial discretion from the process; we invented the "super-max" prison and routinely put criminals in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day.

The results have been, arguably, even worse than critics predicted. As Porter points out, the percentage of Americans behind bars has tripled since the mid-1970s (even as the population has grown by roughly 100 million). We incarcerate people at the rate of 710/100,000 people (the rate in England, by comparison is 147 and in Canada 118). And of the 2.2 million of our fellow citizens currently in prison, almost half are black.

That last statistic has occasioned a great deal of conversation as well it should, especially about the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk and racial profiling more broadly. Black Americans are far more likely to wind up in jail, because they are far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement in the first. Even if you don't quite believe that Justice has traded her blindfold for a white hood, it seems indisputable that even as the Supreme Court continues to tell us that race doesn't matter, we have created an entirely racialized justice system.

There is a different, more obvious kind of profiling we ought to do, however, to think about how to end the Era of Mass Incarceration. Men and young men between the ages of 16 and 30 commit the vast, vast majority of the crimes that land you in prison. Your chances of being car-jacked by a 58-year-old woman of any race are approximately zero. Skin pigment isn't really the issue, testosterone is.

Looked at through this lens the problem of mass incarceration isn't only or simply about race but about what is happening to young men of all colors. There are some obvious correlations. The Era of Mass Incarceration began when crime rates were rising at a troubling pace. Entry-level industrial jobs of the sort that only required a high-school diploma began to disappear in the 1970s; the economy as a whole entered the period of "stagflation" with rising prices and rising unemployment; and the United States had (still has) the most parsimonious social safety net of any of the industrialized nations. All of this surely contributed to rising crime rates, and thus to the "get tough on crime" policies that followed.

But something else also disappeared from American life at that moment: the draft.

For roughly 30 years between 1940 and 1973 American men were drafted into the military (there was a brief hiatus in the draft right after World War II). It became a defining experience for millions of men, and, after President Truman desegregated the military, an important vehicle of racial progress. Some of these men made careers out of the military; more of them did their service and left with better life-skills than they had when they entered. Either way, that period of service helped many with their transition into adulthood, exactly at that moment when some young men wind up in the criminal justice system today.

Tens of thousands of those draftees, of course, came home dead, and I don't want to sanitize what the draft did to those Americans who were unwillingly shipped off to Korea or Vietnam. But it may well be more than coincidence that crime rates started to rise, and the economic prospects of poor young men (especially from racial minorities) began to decline, at the same moment that the draft came to end.

I am not suggesting a return to compulsory military service. Instead, I am suggesting that a more widely conceived program of national service might have a significant impact on crime and on the men most likely to commit it by providing them with the kind of work, structure and sense of purpose that is missing for too many of them.

Franklin Roosevelt understood this well before events in Europe compelled him to start the draft in 1940. Over the course of nearly a decade, 1933-1942, 3 million unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25 served in the Civilian Conservation Corps. They worked on any number of programs building roads and bridges, creating state and national parks, re-foresting eroded areas to the tune of 3 billion trees planted.

More than the work it accomplished, however, the CCC addressed the problem of what to do with young men who had little in front of them and less to look forward to. Creating a national service program -- a new CCC -- would pay all sorts of dividends not the least of which would be providing a constructive alternative to young men at exactly that moment in their lives when they are most likely to make bad choices.

In fact, our social policy has not kept pace with neurological science. A growing number of studies is proving what any parent of a teen-aged boy has known from experience: the parts of the male brain that govern impulse control, risk-assessment and long-range planning mature more slowly in boys than in girls and more slowly in some boys than in others. If we are going to end the Era of Mass Incarceration, we need to begin a new era of providing opportunities for boys to grow into men. Bringing back a system of national service can contribute to that.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press).