Before recent decades of decrease of crime, there was decades of increase of crime or rather increase of criminalization.
We know that the growth of incarceration has happened through drug convictions, not from homicide, theft, etc. We also know that most of the drug convictions are for small amounts of drug possession for personal use. You could still argue that at least mass incarceration has been the cause of the decrease of drug use, but even that isn’t supported by the facts.
We also know that whites are as likely or more likely to use and carry illegal drugs. Just as we know that blacks are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug-related crimes. This is because blacks are racially profiled, targeted, and stopped and frisked more often.
Nonetheless, most of the crime in the US has always been committed by whites. So, most of the crime increase and crime decrease involved whites. If you look at poor whites in poor neighborhoods, you see the same social problems as found with poor blacks living in poor neighborhoods, including the problems of crime and police targeting. The police go after poor people in general, because wealthier people do their crimes behind closed doors where police don’t see it happening. Poor people are an easy target and they can’t fight back legally and politically.
Most of this issue of crime and incarceration has had to do with the War On Drugs. As I’ve pointed out, it is no different than what happened during Prohibition. Back then, the minorities targeted were Italians, Germans, Irish, and Scots-Irish. Today, along with poverty-stricken descendants of those ethnic Americans (such as in Appalachia), the minorities targeted are blacks and Hispanics. These minorities weren’t committing more crimes. Instead, laws were created to criminalize and target these minorities.
White and wealthy people commit crimes as well. But even when these crimes are known, authorities have little interest in going after them. It is costly for the government to try to convict people who have the money to buy the best lawyers in the country. Plus, these people have political connections. White collar crimes are rampant in our society and do far more harm to far more people, but they mostly go unpunished. Even when the wealthy do drugs, it rarely leads to negative consequences. The last three presidents did drugs and it wasn’t any big deal, but a poor black kid will have their life ruined for the exact same behavior. Even many child molesters get off easier than many of those convicted of victimless drug-related crimes.
There is no excuse for any of this. The injustice should be intolerable, assuming one lived in a moral society.
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In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.
That something, of course, is the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.
What all that money has helped produce — aside from unchanged drug addiction rates — is the world’s highest incarceration rate. According to the Sentencing Project, 2.2 million Americans are in prison or jail.
More than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes in 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and that number has only just dipped below 50 percent in 2011. Despite more relaxed attitudes among the public at large toward non-violent offenses like marijuana use, the number of people in federal prison for drug offenses spiked from 74,276 in 2000 to 97,472 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The punishment falls disproportionately on people of color. Blacks make up 50 percent of the state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. Black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white ones — even though white kids are more likely to abuse drugs.
Black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate ten times higher than that of whites. But new research shows that young African Americans are actually less likely to use drugs and less likely to develop substance use disorders, compared to whites, Native Americans, Hispanics and people of mixed race.
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African American Families Today: Myths and Realities
By Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith
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As a point of reference, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens on drug convictions alone than the entire incarcerated population of the European Union, which has a population significantly greater than the United States.
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Many Americans assume that African American men commit more crimes and therefore it is logical that they make up the bulk of the US prison population. And , in fact in opinion poll after opinion poll , including one conducted in 2011 by New Century Foundation (Color of Crime), white Americans say they believe blacks commit more crimes than whites. If everything were equal, this would be a logical conclusion for any thinking person. Yet, as it turns out, the picture is far more complicated than what it appears to be. Once we examine the data, we see that although African American men may be somewhat more likely to commit crimes, especially of certain types, the real cause of their overrepresentation in the prison population is the discrimination they face at every stage of the process, from being identified as suspects to being arrested, charged, and sentenced. We devote the next section of the chapter to a discussion of these issues.
African Americans do commit certain crimes more often than whites . For example, homicide is now one of the leading causes of death for African American men. The data on homicide indicate that more often than not the perpetrator in these homicides is also an African American male. In fact, an examination of the data on all violent crimes (rape, homicide, assault) reveals that violent crimes are primarily intraracial; in other words both the victim and the offender are of the same race. However, when one examines the range of statistics on crime, one finds that just as African Americans are disproportionately likely to commit certain crimes (homicide), whites are disproportionately likely to commit others. Though some of these are nonviolent, financial crimes like those that executives such as Bernie Madoff (the ponzi scheme master ) and Ken Lay (Enron Corporation) were convicted of, their nonviolent nature does not mean these crimes do not have victims. In fact, these crimes harm millions of American victims; many of whom have lost their life savings. For those unsuspecting folks who were employed in these firms, they lost their weekly paychecks, health insurance, and indeed their livelihoods when the firms collapsed as a result of the scams. Perhaps more perplexing is the fact that whites are also more likely to be serial murderers, child molesters, and school shooters. In fact the dominant profile of the perpetrators in all of these horrible crimes is not just white , but male. White men commit these crimes at disproportionately high rates. When we look closely at the treatment of child molesters- who are primarily white men- by the criminal justice system, we learn that the average child molester serves shorter sentences than crack offenders, who are primarily African American men. Child molesters are sentenced to an average of six years, and serve, on average, only 43 percent of their full sentences whereas the average person convicted of possession of crack is sentenced to eleven years and serves 80 percent of his sentence. In practical terms this means that the average child molester serves just under three years where as the average person convicted of possessing a small amount of crack serves nearly three times longer, just under nine years. Because the length of the sentence shapes the overall number of people in prison-those serving longer sentences contribute more to the overall incarcerated population than those who serve shorter sentences, the racial gap in incarceration rates cannot be explained entirely by the rate of committing crime. Part of the incarceration rate is driven by differences in sentencing that keep certain people in prison for longer periods of time than others.
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Along with differences in traffic stops and arrest, there is also substantial evidence to support the argument that African Americans receive stiffer sentences than their white counterparts who commit the same crime. For example, among people convicted of drug felonies in state courts, whites were less likely than African Americans to be sent to prison. Specifically, in his testimony to the US Sentencing Commission on Racial Disparity in 2012, Marc Mauer reported on his research on sentencing demonstrating that in state courts 33 percent of convicted white defendants received a prison sentence whereas 51 percent of African American defendants received prison sentences for the same drug convictions. 2 In addition , in a review of forty recent and methodologically sophisticated studies investigating the link between race and sentence severity, many of the studies, especially at the federal level, found evidence of direct discrimination against minorities that resulted in significantly more severe sentences for African Americans than their white counterparts. 3 Therefore, we conclude that part of the explanation for differential rates in incarceration is racial disparities in sentencing. More African American men are in prison than their white counterparts because when convicted of the same crime they are more likely to receive harsher prison sentences.
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Though for a variety of reasons- including a lack of DNA evidence in most crimes- there is no way to estimate the number of wrongful convictions; some scholars who study the issue estimate that 6 percent of those in prison were wrongly convicted. To be clear , this does not mean people who were sent to prison for the wrong charge- armed robbery instead of simple robbery- this refers to people who are factually innocent; they did not commit any crime. Even if only 6 percent of the half a million African American men in prison are actually innocent, the years of life lost in prison is supremely significant to those men and to their families.
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Across the twentieth century, Americans’ attitudes around drugs (and alcohol) have changed in terms of both drug and alcohol use as well as in terms of the use of the criminal justice system to regulate drugs and alcohol . One common misperception is that the dramatic rise in arrests, convictions, and incarceration for drug charges reflects an overall increase in the number and percent of Americans using controlled substances . In fact, research by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Information Clearinghouse, 5 which has collected data on drug use, from 1975 to the present, shows overwhelming, in every category, that drug use rose from 1975 to 1979 and then dropped off significantly in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. These declines occurred in every age group and for every period for which data were collected . For example, the percent of Americans over the age of twelve who reported using an “illicit substance ” in the last thirty days declined from 14 percent in 1975 to 7 percent in 2002. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that the threefold increase in drug convictions between 1980 and 2008 are not in response to increased drug use, but rather to changes in the criminalization of substances (which occurred slowly across the entire twentieth century) and changes in the policies designed to address drug possession.
The “War on Drugs” officially began in 1972 with a formal announcement by President Richard Nixon. The “War on Drugs” was significantly ramped up under the administration of President Ronald Reagan who added the position of “Drug Czar” to the President’s Executive Office. The War on Drugs did not so much criminalize substances as that had been happening across the early part of the twentieth century. What these laws did do was put into place stiffer sentencing guidelines that required (1) longer sentences, (2) mandatory minimums, (3) moving certain drug offenses from the misdemeanor category to the felony category, and (4) the institution of the “Three Strikes You’re Out” policy. Taken together, these drug laws result in:
*Longer initial sentences: Today crack cocaine defendants receive an average sentence of eleven years.
*Longer overall sentences that result from “Mandatory Minimums”: The most frequently cited example is the sentencing guidelines for possession of crack-cocaine. As part of the War on Drugs, a conviction of possessing five grams of crack now mandates a five-year minimum sentence.
*Felonizing drug offenses: Small possession convictions, particularly of crack cocaine, were recategorized from misdemeanors to felonies in the 1986 Drug Abuse Act.
*”Three Strikes You’re Out”: This law allows for life sentences for convicts receiving a third-felony conviction. Coupled with the recategorizing of some drug possession offenses (i.e., crack cocaine) as felonies, the result has been that many inmates serving life sentences are there for three drug possession offenses; in effect, they are serving life sentences for untreated addictions.
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One of the most important and decisive changes to the drug policies that began implementation in the 1980s revolved around drawing distinctions between two forms of cocaine: crack (or rock) and powder. Crack is created by cooking powder cocaine with baking soda; the residual, or “rocks,” are what we commonly refer to as “crack.” It is commonly believed that crack was developed as a way to deliver a similar high in a cheaper form. Because crack is less pure than cocaine its street value is significantly lower. Many men and women we interviewed about their drug addictions talked about buying or selling a “rock” for around $ 20. As a result, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s exploded with the heavy marketing of crack in low-income black communities, much as “meth” is today in rural white communities. By the early 1980s, around the same time that the Rockefeller Drug Laws were developed, crack had become associated with black urban ghettos and with that image of the “crackhead” being an African American man or woman. In contrast, the more expensive powder cocaine was largely associated with the upper -class professional community as well as with Hollywood. Readers may remember that by the late 1980s it was common to see the latest victim of a cocaine binge- often a child actor like Dana Plato who appeared in the television hit show Different Strokes-in handcuffs or in a mug shot displayed on the nightly news. 6 Those studying drug policy argue that as a result of racialized differential use of crack versus cocaine, drug policies regarding crack and cocaine developed in a racialized manner as well.
Additionally, New York City has a “zero tolerance” policy with police arresting individuals with as little as 25 grams of marijuana, causing an upsurge in arrests, from fewer than 1,500 in 1980 to 50,000 today. The human cost of zero tolerance has been devastating to New York City African American families. 7
In sum, federal drug policy draws a distinction between crack and powder cocaine and sets a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between the two forms. This means that possession of just five grams of crack cocaine (about a thimble full) yields a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same five-year sentence. Crack cocaine is the only drug for which there is a federal mandatory minimum sentence for mere possession. In contrast, the laws around the illegal possession of narcotic prescription drugs, such as oxycontin, for example , do not vary based on the number of milligrams of the drug per tablet. Yet, this is just what the crack cocaine laws do.
The impact of these drug policies on the lives of African Americans and their families are not only severe, but they are way out of line with other postindustrial nations. Currently, in the United States, 450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates (45 percent ) in state and federal prison are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. In contrast, this is more people than the European Union, an entity with a 100 million more people than the United States, has in prison for all crimes combined. States and the federal government continue to spend about $ 10 billion a year imprisoning drug offenders, and billions more on the War on Drugs. These costs do not include the impact incarceration has on the economic and social life of the country, individual states, and communities . Because inmates incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses are disproportionately likely to be African American, the impact on the African American family, and community, is devastating.
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Thus, in a poor African American community-inhabited by the abandoned- perhaps as many as 50 percent of the men will have been to prison. If 50 percent of men in a single community have been incarcerated and have felony records, then half the families in this community will face the consequences of the chronic unemployment and underemployment these men face as a result of their incarceration.
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Pager designed an experiment in which she sent out “testers” to apply for jobs. In one case the job applicant indicated that he had a felony record and in the other he indicated that he did not have a felony record. Both African American and white men played both roles. Her study revealed that whites were more likely to be called back for an interview regardless of incarceration history. White men without a felony were, not surprisingly, the most likely to be called back of all groups. The shocking finding from her research is that whites with a felony record were more likely to be called back than African Americans without a felony record. Fewer than 5 percent of African American men with a felony record were called back (compared to 15 percent of whites with a felony record). Incarceration is problematic for anyone, but the effects are devastating on the employability of African American men and ultimately on the families they are hoping to support.
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Incarceration depletes political capital, both of the individual and of the community from which the individual comes. This depletion of political capital is critical both symbolically and practically . The disenfranchisement of felons has symbolic power because it takes away a right, the right to vote, that is the quintessential symbol of being an American citizen. Furthermore, because of the high rates of incarceration of African Americans , disenfranchisement also takes away the power of African American communities to choose their political representation at the local, state, and national level. According to sociologists Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza, the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was shaped in part by felony disenfranchisement. 9 Finally, the relocation of inmates from their home communities to prisons in other counties, in other parts of the states, changes the way that resources are allocated by the state and federal government. Though many people know that inmates are relocated for the purposes of incarceration, the way that this shapes resource allocation is less well known, but extremely important and thus worthy of discussion.
The Impact of Incarceration on the US Census
Currently, the Census, which is used every ten years to, among other things, redraw congressional districts to ensure that districts are proportional , allows rural communities with prisons to “count” inmates as citizens. In New York, like most states, prisons are in rural regions but the majority of inmates originate from urban communities, thus the relocation of inmates to rural prisons has significant outcomes for the Census and ultimately for both the counties that house the prisons and the counties from which the inmates originate. This practice allows rural counties to “grow” and thereby get more congressional representation while urban communities “dwindle” and get fewer representatives and fewer tax-based economic resources. This is despite the fact that the inmates counted as citizens of rural communities are disenfranchised and thus cannot vote. Therefore , they are in no way “citizens” of these rural communities. Again, New York State provides a useful illustration.
New York City loses 43,740 residents annually to the districts of upstate legislators where they are incarcerated in rural areas. Inmates have been moving up there for decades, but since 1982, all new state prisons in New York are built upstate . As a result of Census rules, rural upstate communities counting the prisoners as “citizens” are actually overestimating their populations beyond the 5 percent rule established by the US Supreme Court. In fact, the population of some upstate towns comprised mostly of inmates. The majority of the population of Dannemora, New York, is incarcerated in its “supermax” prison and almost half (3,000) of the town of Coxsackie’s population (7,000) is in prison.
As many as twenty-one counties in the United States have more than 21 percent of their population incarcerated as recorded by the Census. In four counties, the percentage is nearly one-third. We note that these counties are both rural and for the most part, southern; thus the poorest regions of the country are able to actualize and access government resources by decimating urban ghettos.
This process is racialized as well. For example, the majority of inmates coming from the boroughs of New York City are African Americans who live in predominately African American districts. They are relocated and counted in predominately white counties. Thus, congressional representation and federal and state resources are rerouted from predominately African American districts to predominately white districts.
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How important was the disenfranchisement debacle in Florida in 2000? Uggen analyzed what he first identified as the demographic characteristics of the pool of wrongly disenfranchised and then examined the previous voting patterns for these groups. By extrapolating the voting records on top of the election outcome, his research demonstrates that had African Americans who were wrongly disenfranchised in Florida in the 2000 presidential election had their right to vote restored and recognized, the outcome of the election would have been clearly in favor of Vice President Gore. Thus, the consequences of felony disenfranchisement are significant and affect the lives of all Americans .
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It is not hard to demonstrate that incarcerating young African American males, ages sixteen to thirty-five, directly affects family life. It can be underscored in a “what if” scenario: One in nine African American men between the ages of sixteen and thirty -five is behind bars. According to 2009 data from the Census Bureau we learn that 70.5 percent of African American women between the ages twenty and thirty have never married. Is this a direct correlation? Probably. If men and women marry mostly members from their own race group, something is going on here.
Stanford University professor Ralph Richard Banks, in his book Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, sheds light on the reasons why African American women are the most unmarried group of people in the United States. The answer is not because African American men are with white women- as spouses or boyfriends- as some wrongly believe. It is, to be sure, what Harvard sociologist William J. Wilson means when he argues that the male marriageable pool is depleted. Women of all races, including African American women, don’t marry men who are jobless and they sure can’t marry them if they are in jail or prison or dead. 11 Thus, the over-incarceration of African American men contributes to many of the issues plaguing the African American family that we have explored elsewhere in the book, including low marriage rates for African American women, high rates of single-parenting, and poverty.
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The New Jim Crow
The claim that we really know where all the black men have gone may inspire considerable doubt. If we know, why do we feign ignorance ? Could it be that most people really don’t know? Is it possible that the roundup, lockdown, and exclusion of black men en masse from the body politic has occurred largely unnoticed? The answer is yes and no.
Much has been written about the ways in which people manage to deny, even to themselves, that extraordinary atrocities, racial oppression, and other forms of human suffering have occurred or are occurring. Criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, States of Denial. The book examines how individuals and institutions-victims, perpetrators, and bystanders-know about yet deny the occurrence of oppressive acts. They see only what they want to see and wear blinders to avoid seeing the rest. This has been true about slavery, genocide , torture, and every form of systemic oppression.
Cohen emphasizes that denial, though deplorable, is complicated. It is not simply a matter of refusing to acknowledge an obvious, though uncomfortable, truth. Many people “know” and “not-know” the truth about human suffering at the same time. In his words, “Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.”
Today, most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration. For more than three decades, images of black men in handcuffs have been a regular staple of the evening news. We know that large numbers of black men have been locked in cages. In fact, it is precisely because we know that black and brown people are far more likely to be imprisoned that we, as a nation, have not cared too much about it. We tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know- and don’t know- that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes. We know that people released from prison face a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and exclusion, and yet we claim not to know that an undercaste exists . We know and we don’t know at the same time.