--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.
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- Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, rev. and updated (New York: The New Press, 2006).
The United States has an incarceration rate about seven times higher than other Western developed nations. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world—and it is still rising. In 2004, the U.S. incarceration rate was eight times France’s, seven and a half times Germany’s and six and a quarter times Canada’s. Mauer argues that this does not have to be the case.
Prior to the 1970s, the U.S. incarceration rate was on par with other Western developed nations. But since the initiation of the “war on drugs” and the “tough on crime” mentality we have had a strong and steady increase in America’s incarceration rate.
Some might argue that it is incarceration that prevents the U.S. from having a higher crime rate. Over the 1990s, there was a very strong decline in crime rates across the country. Today, crime rates are still at a relatively low level in spite of a slight rise in some areas. Is the high U.S. incarceration rate keeping the crime rate low?
Since the early 1970s, the incarceration rate has only gone up yet the crime rate has both increased and decreased. From 1970 to 1980, the crime rate and the incarceration rate both increased. From 1984 to 1991, again, both rates increased. The U.S. has seen long periods where the crime rate increased and the incarceration rate increased. If incarceration had a powerful negative effect on the crime rate, the crime rate would decrease with large increases in the incarceration rate. This has not been the case.
Mauer’s argument is not that there should be no incarceration, but rather that we should be, as others have called it, “smart on crime” rather than “tough on crime.” “Tough on crime” policies have been largely counterproductive. High incarceration rates and other “tough on crime” policies may actually increase the crime rate in the long term.
A large part of the increase in the number of prisoners has been of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. For individuals with substance abuse problems, drug-treatment is far better than incarceration. Mauer states:
A 1994 study conducted by the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs . . . found that every dollar invested in substance abuse treatment generated seven dollars in savings, primarily through reductions in crime and reduced hospitalizations. (175)Other studies have concurred that increasing drug treatment is a far “smarter” strategy for dealing with drug addicts that incarceration. For nonviolent property crime offenses, community service and other types of alternatives to incarceration are “smarter” responses.
One way that our criminal justice polices may increase crime is that in our “tough on crime” mentality, we actually make it difficult for ex-offenders to desist from criminal behavior. Rather than providing opportunities for ex-offenders to become employed, we make it more difficult for them and thus increase the likelihood that they return to crime. “In 1994, Congress prohibited inmates from receiving Pell grants for higher-education courses” (200). The more educated ex-offenders are the more likely they will be able to find a job. Many states also prohibit ex-offenders from obtaining a license for many jobs such as becoming a barber or doing asbestos removal (199). Jobs like becoming a barber or an asbestos remover are among the few jobs that the average ex-offender actually has a decent chance of obtaining. Preventing ex-offenders from becoming socially-integrated, employed individuals amounts to begging them to return to criminal behavior. These policies are certifiably “stupid on crime.”
Our “stupid on crime” mentality leads us to over-fund pro-incarceration policies and under-fund crime-reduction policies. For example, early in the Clinton Administration, Congress decided against a $60 billion economic program to create jobs in Los Angeles after the Los Angeles riots. More jobs would have likely reduced Los Angeles crime rates. That program, however, was deemed too expensive. A year later,
Congress . . . determined that they could in fact allocate $30 billion to these communities. This time, though, the appropriation took the form of a massive crime bill loaded with sixty new death penalty offenses, $8 billion in prison construction, “three strikes” sentencing, and other provisions certain to escalate the prison population (185).Congress decided that the country could not afford job creation and crime prevention for poor black communities, but it could afford to increase criminal justice expenditures to put more blacks in prison.
Our criminal justice policies are, in part, the product of anti-black attitudes. This might seem like an extreme and unfair characterization until one reads Mauer’s review of racial attitudes and support for “tough on crime” policies. Researchers have found that if crime is perceived as being disproportionately committed by blacks, whites are more supportive of harsher punishment. Anti-black prejudice is also correlated with greater support for the death penalty. Another study finds that the size of a state’s black population better predicts the incarceration rate than the actual violent crime rate. Anti-black bias is a significant factor in our criminal justice policies.
As some have argued, reforming the criminal justice system is the number one black civil rights struggle of this generation. The so-called civil rights leadership, however, did not get the memo.
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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.
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