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.