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America’s Domestic Time Bomb

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By Milton J. Little, Jr.
Interim President and CEO
National Urban League


Amid the momentous developments in Iraq, and the media’s focus on the war, there occurred last week in this country a seemingly mundane event—the release of a government report—that caught one’s attention like the dull thud of bombs going off in the far distance.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released its annual survey of prison statistics, and its hard numbers and their implications are staggering.

For the first time in America’s history, the number of inmates in the nation’s prisons and jails has surpassed two million people—a four-fold increase in the three decades since the mid-1970s.

“Imagine that,” the Washington Post editorialized by way of a stunning comparison, “the United States locked up the populations of Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota and then threw in the nation of Iceland for good measure.”

This astonishing drive to mass incarceration—the development of “a nation of prisoners within American society,” in the Post’s words—has produced the highest incarceration rate in the world: seven times that of Canada, and four times that of the United Kingdom. The U.S. has 700 inmates for every 100,000 residents.

And the number of Americans incarcerated has continued to grow even though crime has noticeably declined in recent years and the rate of violent crime is now lower than it was in the mid-1970s. Just over 1 million Americans are in state penitentiaries, nearly 162,000 are in federal prisons, and another 800,000 are in local jails or community facilities.

It’s not at all surprising, but it is deeply alarming that the most striking feature of America’s prison profile is its color line: African Americans, 12 percent of the total U.S. population, are incarcerated in wildly disproportionate numbers.

Of the more than 1.8 million males in state or federal prisons and local jails, nearly 819,000—or 45 percent—are Black, 630,000 are white, and 342,000 are Latino.

Of the nearly 166,000 total women inmates, nearly 69,000 are white, nearly 66,000—or 40 percent—are Black, and 25,000 are Latino.
Roughly 12 percent of African-American males aged 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, compared to 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group.

America’s incarceration frenzy of the past three decades has been pushed by several profoundly misguided factors—among them, the excessive “get-tough” response to the spike in crime that began in the mid-1970s.
Drug infractions were a chief target of that posturing. As a result, now, nearly 60 percent of federal prisoners and more than 20 percent of state prisoners are in custody for drug offenses—in many cases, lower-level ones.

I hold no brief for being “soft” on crime. But the experience of America’s recent past has shown clearly that being “tough” on crime isn’t the same as being “smart” about
dealing with crime.

The waste of “human capital” has been enormous and enormously costly to the society as a whole.

For one thing, in many states ex-offenders can’t vote.

Think of the effect on our democracy of a growing pool of people who, despite having “paid their debt to society,” are forever cut off from the fundamental right and privilege of citizenship.

The get-tough crowd also gutted the prisons’ rehabilitation programs—turning them, in effect, into places where the only schooling available was in a life of crime.

How smart was that?

One need only look at the statistics about and the conditions in the communities where African-American and Latino-American inmates come from to understand how, not all, certainly, but many have been themselves victimized by a vicious cycle set up by joblessness, poor housing, atrocious elementary and secondary schools, and a criminal justice system that is rife with inequities rooted in the class and racial facts of life.

It’s easy to dismiss all of those incarcerated as having “chosen” to commit crime. But the fact is that some significant number is driven to it by lack of opportunity.

That truth was driven home by the national study of more than 300 metropolitan areas done in 1999 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Cambridge, Massachusetts think tank, which found that the long economic boom of the 1990s had, by the decade’s end, finally begun significantly benefiting those at the bottom of the economic and occupational ladder. It opened up jobs for young, poor, and poorly-educated Black males.

The study found that Black males, age 16 to 24 with a high school education or less, were working in greater numbers and earning bigger paychecks than ever before—and that levels of reported crime had fallen most sharply in those metropolitan areas where declines in joblessness had been greatest.
Get the connection?

That’s the truth we need to keep in mind if we’re to have any chance of defusing the time bomb the Bureau of Justice Statistics report tells us we’ve planted in our midst.

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