Criminal Justice Reform Is Pro-Marriage, Pro-Family

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--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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[On the Need for Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform.]

Barack Obama delivered another masterful speech Sunday. The news report I saw made it seem like he merely did an impersonation of Bill Cosby, but he was more subtle and sophisticated than that. Nonetheless, it was a speech that Cosby would be proud of since it did endorse Cosby’s arguments.

Obama said that yes black communities needed more jobs and better schools and that past injustices did play a role in the absence of fathers in black homes, but that black people could not use those things as excuses. He said that black men should not be languishing in prison when they should be out looking for a job.

There are too many issues here that should be unpacked and discussed for me to deal with all of them at this point, but I’ll tackle a few.

The injustices are not only in the past. Our current criminal justice system is biased by race and class as I illustrated last week in “Whites, Blacks and Illicit Drugs”. If we had different criminal justice policies there would be fewer black men in prison. We need to work to eliminate the race and class biases in the criminal justice system. We need to expand opportunities for drug treatment. We need to use alternative, community-based sentencing for certain non-violent offenders. If we had elected officials who were committed to reforms of this sort, there would be more black men available to be the fathers that Obama and Cosby would like to see.

This is a very real issue for black women in the poorest black communities. Even the conservative (by my standards) scholar Isabel Sawhill admits that “for certain subgroups of African-American women” she “did find a shortage of eligible men” for them to marry.1 We simply can’t improve the rate of two-parent families in the poorest black communities without dealing with the present racial injustices in our criminal justice system.

Obama argues that blacks should not use issues like the lack of jobs, the high rate of poverty, the high degree of economic inequality as excuses for the absence of men in black families. But there is a growing body of research that identifies the lack of jobs, poverty and economic inequality as important causes of the higher rates of crime in black communities.2 If we want to keep black men out of prison, we will also need economic policies to address these issues.

The economic development of poor black communities is also important because black men who are unemployed are probably less likely to marry. Poor black women are probably not interested in marrying unemployed black men. Unemployed black men are probably reluctant to marry if they cannot contribute financially to the household.

The more education one has the more likely one is to marry.3 The issue of the separate and unequal education that black students receive is, again, not simply an excuse. If we improve the educational attainment of blacks, we will likely increase marriage rates.

If Obama wishes to increase the marriage rates in black communities, he needs to (1) recognize the racial disparities in our criminal justice system as one of the current injustices facing black America, (2) institute policies that lead to good jobs for blacks, and (3) improve the quality of black schools. Is Obama able to recognize the importance of these policies? Will Obama be willing and able to deliver them, if he does?

1. Isabel V. Sawhill, “The Behavioral Aspects of Poverty,” The Public Interest, Fall 2003, p. 88.

2. Eric D. Gould, Bruce A. Weinberg, and David B. Mustard, “Crime Rates and Local Labor Market Opportunities in the United States: 1979-1997,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 84(1), February 2002: 45-61; Stephen Machin and Costas Meghir, “Crime and Economic Incentives,” Journal of Human Resources 39(4), Autumn 2004: 958-979; Jens Ludwig, Greg J. Duncan, and Paul Hirschfield, “Urban Poverty and Juvenile Crime: Evidence from a Randomized Housing-Mobility Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 116(2), May 2001: 655-679; Morgan Kelly, “Inequality and Crime,” Review of Economics and Statistics 82(4), November 2000: 530-539.

3. David T. Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, “The Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families: What Do We Know? Where Do We Look for Answers?” in Social Inequality, Kathryn Neckerman ed. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004), 3-77.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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