The United States has earned its title as the leader of mass incarceration. The rate of incarceration is constantly increasing, now, America has more prisoners than the entire European countries (Hamilton, 2014). The current state of incarceration was created by incarceration policies adopted by the US Sentencing Commission since its inception. Surprisingly, even with the downward trend on in national crime rates, the incarceration rates keep increasing. The biggest victim of mass incarceration is the minorities; a young black man is likely to be arrested ten times more than a young white man. Hence, America’s mass incarceration is responsible for locking up a bigger percentage of the minority population and sustaining systemic discrimination faced by the minorities.
Massoglia et al. (2013) notes that the U.S. prison population has quadrupled since the mid-1970s. In 2007, the U.S. incarceration rate reached a historic high of 767 per 100,000 in comparison to 150 people per 100,000 in 1980s. Approximately 5% of America’s population is in jail, and this statistics affect more minorities. In 2000, 1 in 10 black male between the ages of 20-40 was incarcerated- ten times the rate of their white peers (Coates, 2016). In 2010, 30% of black male high school drop outs between the ages of 20-39 were imprisoned in comparison to 13% of their white peers (Coates, 2016). Generally, due to racial bias in the justice system, one in three black men expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime compared to one in six rate in Latino males and one in 17 among white male. The dramatic increase in the number of prisoners in the U.S. has adverse effects on minorities who have higher chances of being imprisoned.
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Coates (2016) notes that mass incarceration has increased misery among minority groups. In the late 1970s, one in four black male went to prison by their mid-30s. Consequently, going to prison is no longer an extreme event among the nation’s most marginalized groups. In the poor neighborhoods occupied by the minorities, the police are always arresting someone even for minor incidences that do not warrant arrest. Mass incarceration is responsible for over 1 million black children with their fathers in prison, and yet paternal incarceration is often associated with behavior problems and delinquency particularly among boys (Coates, 2016).
According to Street (2001), massive incarceration of high-poverty minority groups creates devastating consequences for these communities. These individuals have more limited opportunities to progress in society, and incarceration only makes their situation worse. For instance, many states have come up with policies to deny prisoners voting rights. With felony records, these individuals find it hard to secure employment after serving time especially because they belong to a minority group. Mass incarceration is responsible for making the life of an already disenfranchised group much harder by limiting their access to opportunities. Western & Pettit (2010) refer to this scenario as invisible inequality; incarceration remains invisible to the mainstream society because incarcerated individuals are segregated from the rest of the society such that it is easy to hide the effects of a discriminative justice system.
Why Mass Incarceration is high among Minorities
Historically, mass incarceration has remained high among minorities due to racism; however, today’s justice system is responsible for creating barriers that make it hard for minorities to access the necessary services they need to clear their names. Small decisions made by the American justice system cumulatively lead to high incarceration rates for minorities. For instance, bail practices lead to many minorities being incarcerated because they cannot afford bail in comparison to whites. Other instances such as “driving while black” scenario shows that the law enforcement is prejudiced towards blacks and other minorities (Nellis et al., 2008).
There are a number of reasons for the high number of minorities behind bars: high crime rates among minorities, inequitable access to resources, legislative decisions and overt racism (Nellis et al., 2008). For an individual to be arrested, he/she must be involved in a criminal activities. Statistics show that there are more crimes in neighborhoods occupied by minorities. FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) shows that 39% of violent crime arrests and 31% of arrests for property crime involve African Americans (Nellis et al., 2008). Albeit the high crime cases among African Americans, it does not justify the unfair decision to incarcerate and longer sentences given to the minorities in comparison to whites.
The judicial system through its policies is also responsible for putting many minorities behind bars. Legislations made at federal, state and local levels impact the criminal justice system. Legislations are responsible for defining prohibited behavior, creating penalties and coming up with processes in which sentences are determined. A number of these legislations have disproportionate impact on minorities and it is responsible for high incarceration rates. For instance, the war on drugs policies have heavily impacted the composition of America’s prisons. In the 1980s, Reagan administration declared war on drugs instead of focusing on violence and other social problems facing the society. The war on drugs was popularized by media propaganda which showed that crack cocaine associated with African Americans was more dangerous in comparison to powder cocaine, a white man’s drug (Griffith, 2012). Eventually, too many African Americans were locked up on drug charges despite statistics showing that a bigger percentage of white population abused drugs. According to the Mental Health Services Administration, 76% of illicit drug users in the US were white, 14% were African Americans and 15% were Hispanics in the mid-1990s (Griffith, 2012). The drug sentencing policies created mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine offenses on federal and state level (Nellis et al., 2008). The legislation had no effect on drug related crime, and it was only responsible for putting more minorities behind bars.
Other policies such as the three-strike policy have led to adoption of over-punitive measures. According to three strikes policy, after two felony charges, one is liable for a mandatory life sentence. The judicial system has created policies that favor longer incarceration terms, and yet the consequences of these policies are felt disproportionately by minorities.
Griffith (2012) notes that while racism is presented as a thing of the past, it exists profoundly in the criminal justice system. Griffith notes that racism is highly adaptable, law enforcement officers target blacks and other minorities more than whites because of their racial stereotypes towards them. Eventually, many blacks and other minorities find themselves in jails offering convict labor for private firms for free.
Mass incarceration focusses more on street crimes and neglects dangerous white collar crimes, which are mostly committed by powerful people in the society. Criminals involved in complicated white collar crimes often cause more damage to the community, and yet they not pursued like small time offenders in poor inner city neighborhoods. An African American weed dealer is more likely to be pursued than a huge corporate crime, embezzlement of public funds and price fixing in monopolies.
The problem of higher incarceration rates among the minorities falls within the context of mass incarceration. If mass incarceration did not exist in the US, many African American and Latinos would not be behind bars. Due to mass incarceration, American justice system is now creating more punitive laws, prisons and penitentiaries without any consideration of whether mass incarceration is effective or not. Behind bars, little consideration is given to job training, rehabilitation or educations, eventually the already disenfranchised group will face more challenges in re-entering society (Nellis et al., 2008).
Policy makers resorted to mass incarceration as an easy fix to crime problem in American society. However, the policy makers failed to plan for the consequences of mass incarceration, the unequal distribution and its adverse socio-economic effects. Instead of sustainably reducing crime, mass incarceration is now a flawed system that preys on the minorities. Yet minorities already have trouble securing employment and accessing good health, education and other opportunities.
Social Awareness and Government Intervention
While racial inequalities in American prisons is often termed as an invisible form of equality, this problem can no longer be avoided. Cases of racial profiling, police bias and brutality towards minorities are often highlighted in the media, yet the justice system has failed to take appropriate measures to change the system. Griffith (2012) notes that in the Drug War, it is common for police to plant drugs on innocent people so that they can meet the “expectations” of the supervisors. It is now a common fact that many blacks and Latinos spend years in prison for small crimes that do not deserve longer jail times.
The media, civil rights groups and individuals have created social awareness on this issue. Recent cases of police brutality towards minorities have attracted media attention and a lot of criticism from the public. Organizations such as American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are now campaigning against the unintended consequence of mass incarceration among African Americans and other minorities. ACLU uses its websites, conferences, advocacy groups and other channels to educate the public on the dangers of mass incarceration in America. For instance, according to ACLU website, the U.S. government spends over $80 billion on incarceration annually, while the states spend between $20,000- $50,000 annually to keep an individual behind bars (ACLU, 2016). The website also highlights the discrimination in the American criminal system whereby blacks are incarcerated for drug charges ten times more than whites, yet drug use statistics show that they are almost at the same rate. There are many civil rights group that fight the injustices of the criminal justice system; however, with professionalization of such organizations, there is a disconnection from the people they represent (Griffith, 2012).
Even with the public uproar against injustices against the minorities, the government has failed to come up with policies to address this issue. The public, particularly the minorities, have no faith in the justice system. The government is run by “get-tough on crime” politicians and policy makers that believe that mass incarceration is the only way to reduce crime rates. According to Street (2001), the government used the federal crime index of 1990 to justify mass incarceration; however, reduction in crime in the 1990s was mainly caused by the flawed “war on drugs.”
It is preposterous that the government is still implementing mass incarceration policy despite the many gaps in this policy. The policy is responsible putting a bigger percentage of the minority population behind bars. Mass incarceration of the minorities only deepens their job-skill deficit, making them more reliant on crime. According to Street (2001), 36% of ex-offenders and a staggering 48% of black ex-offenders end up in prison after three years because they cannot secure jobs once they are out of prison. Griffith (2012) notes that re-entering society is harder for criminals as they face legalized forms of discrimination in terms of lack of employment, housing, education, jury service and public benefits. Eventually, they will not be able to provide for their families, and they will end up in crime. Most notably, mass incarceration has negative effects of families. Children with parents in prison have a high chance of being involved in crimes.
In conclusion, mass incarceration and the persistent racial disparities are pressing issues that need to be addressed with urgency. There is a complex relationship between incarceration of many minority men and the constant socio-economic problems affecting them. It is unfortunate that much attention has been focused on mass incarceration as a means of ending crime in America. This is an old school approach to criminal behavior which is causing more harm to society. Now, America has the highest mass incarceration statistics, and yet crime is still rampant in the society. One of the biggest consequence of mass incarceration is the high incarceration of minorities’ particular African Americas. In an effort to implement the mass incarceration policy, the flawed justice system came up with more defective policies such as the Drug War policies that resulted in more African American behind bars. Additionally, racism has played a crucial part, now over 1 million African American children are living without their fathers because of a justice system that relies heavily on incarceration. Even with the knowledge that the judicial system discriminates on minorities, the government has failed to come up with measures to end the practice; unfortunately, more black men and other minorities will end up behind bars.
American Civil Liberties Union. (2016). Mass Incarceration. Retrieved from: https://www.aclu.org/issues/mass-incarceration
Coates, T. (2015). The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The Atlantic . Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/the-black-family-in-the-age- of-mass-incarceration/403246/
Griffith, N. (2012). Racism in the Criminal Justice System. California State University. Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1080&context=socssp
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Nellis, A., Greene, J. A., & Mauer, M. (2008). Reducing racial disparity in the criminal justice system: A manual for practitioners and policymakers . Sentencing Project.
Street, P. (2001). Race, Prison, and Poverty. Z Magazine (May 2001) , 25-31.
Western, B., & Pettit, B. (2010). Incarceration & social inequality. Daedalus , 139 (3), 8-19.