What will the justice system look like, with regard to race, in the year 2042?

Filed under: Visions 2042 |

By Todd R. Clear, Rod K. Brunson, and Johnna Chrsitian

We are a generation away from 2042. So another way of asking this question is, “What will the next generation bring about with regards to race and criminal justice?”

One way to estimate the changes that will occur in the next 32 years is to look backward, to see what changes have occurred in the last 32 years. Then, we can project them into the future.

This approach views history as a kind of linear story in which today’s circumstances can be seen as the product of forces at play in the past. To do this, we go backwards to the year 1978, to consider the impact of the forces at play in those days, the impact on the present reality; then, extend those forces into the future to see what they will become.

This is most certainly half right. Today is certainly a product of the past, just as the future will be the product of today. But today’s world is a panoply of forces, many of them countervailing. Looking retrospectively, it is easy to see what forces have mattered, and in which way. But looking forward, the picture is murky. We know that the Tea Party is an important phenomenon, at the moment, but who knows what its lasting effects—if any—will be? We are also unable to comprehend the role of inevitable technological advances that will unfold in the next 32 years.

For instance, in 1978 we were well into a decade of rising crime, freshly finished with the Vietnam War, and scant years into what would become a 38-year rise in imprisonment. Most “experts” accepted that prison was a largely failed institution. Many of us foresaw a new dawning of community-based penalties. But the import of a series of sentencing reforms that eliminated parole was widely misread. Rather than a first generation of liberal reform, these legal changes ushered in an era of penal code revisions that increasingly toughened the nation’s system of penalties and heralded a politicization of crime policy that dominated the terrain for over 30 years. Not only did these policies entrench punitive approaches to crime problems, but they both implicitly and explicitly racialized them. Who, in 1978, foresaw Willie Horton and/or the War on Drugs?

There is a second problem with using the past to predict the future: what is the scale of time? Historians are fond of pointing out that the pace of innovation has accelerated with time, but what yesterday’s generations experienced as a lifetime’s worth of technological change now occurs in a fraction of that time—a decade, perhaps, or less.

If this is true, then the comparison point to envision 2042 is not 1978—32 years ago—but rather something like 1946, or twice that time (64 years). Looking at criminal justice, it is easy to imagine that the changes between 1946 and 1978 were far less dramatic than the changes between 1978 and now. So perhaps that is right; perhaps we need to look further back.


But both the pattern and pace of change that applies to race seems ill fitted to this linear, accelerating pattern. Indeed, regarding race, what happened between 1946 and 1978 seems much more dramatic than what happened between 1978 and now. By 1978, most of us would have foreseen the dawning of a new era of social and economic equality. What we have seen instead is a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots, and an increasing link between inequality and race, with the criminal justice system operating in a manner that further exacerbates these inequities. Further, as the US enters a supposedly post-racial era, it appears that the nation is poised to become less harmonious—especially concerning immigration and anti-terrorism initiatives.

So it seems that the future of race and criminal justice will be some uncertain combination of an accelerating linear trend—the technology of justice—a set of unforeseeable interventions (who would have predicted a black president in our time?) and a powerful race dynamic that seems to have bogged down rather than speeded up.

What this adds up to is a series of suppositions and branches. The suppositions are the macro-forces, and they form the foundation for whatever else will emerge regarding the justice system. The branches are the turning points, whereby the forces at play will lead in one direction or another.

Suppositions leading to 2042:

1) The contemporary fiscal pressures that states are now experiencing will abate, but non-entitlement spending will be heavily reduced.

2) Fluctuating crime rates will not return to the highest levels of the 1980s.

3) Whites will continue to decline in numbers relative to non-whites.

4) Race will remain a strong correlate of economic inequality.

5) Methods and effectiveness of surveillance will multiply.

These forces will set the foundation for 2042. There will be a growing concentration of people of color who occupy the lowest economic and social statuses of the nation. There will be an abiding political struggle to define the social purposes of social control, and it will become ever-less connected to crime rates and ever-more connected to socio-political definitions.


1) A great deal depends upon whether the nation’s drug policy remains primarily within the justice sector or shifts to another, such as public health or even public education.

2) Much depends on whether nascent forces of the present—in particular, the justice reinvestment movement and the array of non-punitive crime prevention strategies—come to play strong, permanent roles in the justice toolkit.

3) The political fallout of today’s collision of perceived interests between a declining white soon-to-be minority and a burgeoning non- white majority especially concentrated in the regions of the US with the greatest economic growth will be crucial.

Under one set of scenarios, the US penal system becomes more concentrated among people of color, more associated with an array of social controls that begin early in the poorer citizens’ school years and continue long into adulthood. Under this scenario, the macro trends of growing forms and arenas of formal social control and racialized social inequality converge to create a large class of inter-generationally bound citizens whose lives are dominated by the role the criminal justice system plays. This is the viewpoint of the linear historical trend.

Or, something will happen. The justice system will transform, from its current realization as the punitive arm of the state to a reduced-in-size manifestation of targeted public safety activity relating to serious (violent) crime. This is the view of the smaller justice instrument, delinked to the racial functions of social control and more tightly bound to the nature of serious crime. This will not happen unless something big, unforeseen, and broadly influential occurs to change the march of history regarding race and justice.


Artist: Vidya Wolton

Todd R. Clear is Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, Newark. He is a leading corrections scholar focusing on the consequences of incarceration for communities and justice reinvestment policies.

Rod K. Brunson is an Associate Professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, Newark. He studies neighborhood disadvantage and young people’s experiences with the criminal justice system.

Johnna Christian is an Assistant Professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers Univeristy, Newark. She studies the consequences of incarceration for families and communities and prisoner reentry.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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