Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow

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(AP Photo/David Goldman)
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

In the latest installment of his excellent New York Times series, Time and Punishment, John Tierney writes that mass incarceration trends of the past 30 years may have done more to harm crime-ridden communities and their residents than help them. As the number of prisoners has risen and the length of sentences has grown, Tierney writes:

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.

“Prison has become the new poverty trap,” said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Among African Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

According to a report from the Sentencing Project, a justice reform group, 75 percent of black males in Washington, D.C. can expect to go to prison or jail during their lifetime. Longer sentences mean many spend decades behind bars — well into middle and old age — even though studies have shown that the likelihood of committing a crime drops steeply once a man enters his 30s.

Mass incarceration also has a strong negative effect on an inmate’s family. Tierney follows one family that became homeless when the father began a twenty-year prison term at the age of 24. “Basically, I was locked up with him,” his wife told Tierney. “My mind was locked up. My life was locked up. Our daughters grew up without their father.”

As Donald Braman, an anthropologist at The George Washington University Law School, noted, “The social deprivation and draining of capital from these communities may well be the greatest contribution our state makes to income inequality. There is no social institution I can think of that comes close to matching it.”

In 2010, legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of the book The New Jim Crow, explained on Bill Moyers Journal that the overtly racist policies of the past have been replaced with racially coded policies that still hurt minority communities and have lead to America having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

This clip is from that discussion, in which Alexander, Bill Moyers and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson discuss the state of racial and economic justice on the 42nd anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

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  • http://albatross.org/ Albatross

    It’s no surprise that a map of per-capita Black incarceration rates could easily be mistaken for a Civil War era map. And in that regard what IS Barack Obama doing for the African American community that voted for him so reliably?

    In any event, the for-profit prison system combined with the Citizens United ruling that legalized Congressional bribery means that every American needs to get used to the idea of going to prison at some point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.mclaughlin.948 Michael McLaughlin

    Incarceration is controlled by a self serving system of interested
    parties. More incarcerations more job security, even more incarcerations more jobs.

  • Janet Innes-Kirkwood

    We are at the point where so many people are incarcerated and under parole or probation that it is now 1 in 37 Americans. It is so racist not even the most determined can block the facts. This issue undermines what it means to live in the land of the “free.” However it was bad policy that got us here to a point where we are competing with the worst of them, so maybe we could try some different policies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/connie.williams.10 Connie Williams

    The penal system is a growth industry in this country. The fact that is was built on the backs of black males is no surprise. The damage to the black communities is huge. Imagine being stopped by police once a week for no reason. Imagine being pulled out of the car, frisked, and cussed at for no reason. Young black males have difficulty finding jobs. Add the effect of constant harassment ….crime becomes a viable option….drugs a viable escape…Until we begin to solve societies ills in these areas, I’m afraid for our future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RoughAcres Rough Acres

    Slavery is still Big Business.

  • SueAnn Tavener

    I would like to see a program about how the private prison industry has lobbied in states for more laws in order to have a higher need for their facilities…

  • eddie

    Prisons and war should never be privatized or subcontracted to private, for-profit industry.

  • nnyl

    With for-profit prisons contracting with states for minimum incarceration levels, you can expect this to get worse. For them to make a profit, they have to have more and more prisoners.

    In a 2010 Annual Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) stated: “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by . . . leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices . . . .” As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding ever more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not the new Jim Crow ,there’s no ‘separate but equal” subterfuge here. This is the New Slavery The Prison Industrial Complex,involves private for profit prisons and prison management companies . This piece just skims the surface

  • http://www.facebook.com/travis.hall.58118 Travis Hall

    Barack is not “one of us” (African-american). His father is an actual African We have still yet to have a descendant of slaves as pres. I’m also half white and wouldn’t consider him as black but mixed race.

  • Freecatholic808

    Voices from women in prison in Hawaii–not a paradise for these mothers, daughters, sisters, torn from their families. There are better alternatives to help them rebuild after often minor “crimes.”http://freecatholic808.com/2011/02/22/beyond-our-prisons/ It costs far less to re-educate than to imprison and yet we keep putting people behind bars.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BARTSLAW Steven Bartley

    Another tragic consequence of the mass incarceration policy, is the the “treat of being locked up” no longer has any deterrent effect in that very few of those incarcerated even considered prison or force confinement as a reason not to commit a crime… Too often he hear the rational….”I had to do what I had to do”…We simply have to find a better way…Think so fb friends?