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Research funded in part by the Arlen Specter Center Research Fellowship.


The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in recorded history, and currently houses roughly 25% of the world’s prison population. Though the US prison population dipped in 2016 to its lowest rate since 1993, the sheer number of people under the supervision of the criminal justice system within the country is staggering. As of 2012, one in one hundred adults in the US are in jail or prison, which makes the US the nation with the world’s largest prison population. The US also leads the world in rate of incarceration. Thus, the nation’s prisons teem with bodies at the federal and state level. Whether one refers to this phenomenon as the carceral state, mass incarceration, or the prison industrial complex, the use of such terms endeavor to codify the notion America incarcerates too many people. The federalization of criminal law, culminating in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which led to explosive federalization of the criminal code and laid the infrastructure for the mechanism for incarcerating people at explosive rates. This critical essay will interrogate the dynamics of the infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and its role in expanding the modern prison Industrial Complex, and will center the specific contributions of the late Senator Arlen Specter to interrogate his efforts to achieve more equitable criminal justice advocacy. A principal objective of Specter of Reform is to maneuver beyond intense racially-charged rhetorical debates of the modern prison industrial complex and to examine how various efforts aimed at reducing violent crime exacerbated the disproportionate rate of Black male incarceration.