Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prisoners Don't Count (Unless They Do)

How Prisoners Make Us Look Good:

A FEW years ago, the sociologists Becky Pettit and Bryan Sykes tried to quantify a worrisome phenomenon: the growing proportion of black men imprisoned by age 20. Focusing on those born between 1975 and 1979 who later dropped out of high school, they noticed an anomaly. “Our initial efforts,” Dr. Pettit recalls, “implied that more young, black, low-skill men had been to prison than were alive.” 

It took her no time to resolve the inconsistency: corrections officials count actual prisoners, a captive audience; sociologists and census-takers typically undercount prisoners and former inmates living on the edge of society. 

The real problem, as Dr. Pettit sees it, is that imprisoned black men aren’t figured into statistics about the standing of African-Americans. The consequence, she says, is an overstatement of black progress in education, employment, wages and voting participation. 
We spend so much of our time counting prisoners, we fail to take into account how the imprisoned population effects the greater census and population counts on the outside.
Dr. Pettit, of the University of Washington, has now presented her research in “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation. Among her conclusions: 

¶ Among male high school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979, 68 percent of blacks (compared with 28 percent of whites) had been imprisoned at some point by 2009, and 37 percent of blacks (compared with 12 percent of whites) were incarcerated that year. 

¶ By the time they turn 18, one in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent. 

¶ More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs. Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service. 

Black dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than to get married.  

If inmates were counted, she estimates, the black high school dropout rate would soar to 19 percent and the share of dropouts who are employed would plunge to 26 percent — far more dire than the statistics usually cited. The celebrated voter turnout among young blacks in the 2008 election would drop to roughly 20 percent, about where it was in 1980. 

Blacks account for nearly half of the more than 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail. Failure to include them in measures of black progress, she argues, is akin to leaving states out of national counts. Former inmates, too, tend to be undercounted because they are typically poor, mobile and living precariously.
We're only a week away from the election, so I'm hesitant to say much related to either candidate on this issue. I've been just as critical of Obama and the Democrats as I am Romney and the Republicans, and on this issue, all of the above have failed miserably. 

The plight of Black America has actually gotten worse during Obama's four years, and the Republicans have nothing constructive to offer on the topic. And between the two candidates, the exact number of mentions of mass incarceration and the apartheid we've achieved in our system of prisons is exactly zero.

As usual in a political season, the trivial rises to the fore, and what's important gets left behind. In this case, as Steve Spitzer put it 30 years ago, it's the Social Junk and the Social Dynamite who we can ignore, but ultimately at our own peril.

Because remember all the Surplus Labor we've created the last four years during the recession? Heads up: that tab is coming due soon.


MRMacrum said...

While the racial twist in all this takes front stage, I would love the eggheads to also look at the prison issue from a color blind economic status slant also. Living in a state with a miniscule black population after having grown up in areas with sizable black populations, the one recurring factor for both is poverty. Maine has a sizable population of poor white folks who have been poor for generations. I would guess that the similarities in statistics of poor white Mainers would closely resemble the trends in the black communities. High drop out rates, higher incidents of teen pregnancies, and higher crime rates also.

I would love to see this country focus on poverty first, race second. Work on the poverty and everyone would benefit without race being the wedge that drives the issue apart right out of the gate.

Anyway, good post with some thought provoking information. The bottom line in my opinion is the US has entirely too many people in prison.

Todd Krohn said...

Completely agree, brother. The longest running thread in the history of punishment has always been poverty and the underclass (those who don't have the resources to defend themselves).

Fundamentally, the racial discrepancy is more a manifestation of class bias than racism.