Thursday, February 28, 2013

Out Of Prison (And Into Poverty)

Incarceration Rate for Blacks Falls Sharply:

Incarceration rates for black Americans dropped sharply from 2000 to 2009, especially for women, while the rate of imprisonment for whites and Hispanics rose over the same decade, according to a report released Wednesday by a prison research and advocacy group in Washington.

The declining rates for blacks represented a significant shift in the racial makeup of the United States’ prisons and suggested that the disparities that have long characterized the prison population may be starting to diminish. 

“It certainly marks a shift from what we’ve seen for several decades now,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, whose report was based on data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Justice Department. “Normally, these things don’t change very dramatically over a one-decade period.”
I respect Mauer's work tremendously, but when he says "these things don't change" that quickly in a decade, I'm assuming he's referring to decarceration. Because incarceration can change very dramatically in a decade (see also: the doubling of the prison population in the 1980's, from 330,000 to 750,000; and the doubling again of the prison population in the 1990's from 750,000 to 1.5 million).

But I digress.
Over all, blacks currently make up about 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons; whites account for about 34 percent. 

But the trend is clear, Mr. Mauer said, adding that no single factor could explain the shifting figures but that changes in drug laws and sentencing for drug offenses probably played a large role. Other possible contributors included decreasing arrest rates for blacks, the rising number of whites and Hispanics serving mandatory sentences for methamphetamine abuse, and socioeconomic shifts that have disproportionately affected white women. 

Alfred Blumstein, an expert on the criminal justice system at Carnegie Mellon University, said his own findings from research he conducted with Allen J. Beck of the Bureau of Justice Statistics also indicated that the rate of incarceration for blacks was declining compared with that for whites. 

“A major contributor has been the intensity of incarceration for drug offending,” Dr. Blumstein said, “and that reached a peak with the very long sentences we gave out for crack offenders, stimulated in large part by the violence that was going on in the crack markets.” 

But crack cocaine has become far less of an issue in recent years, he noted, a fact reflected in revisions of federal sentencing laws. And inmates serving time for crack offenses are now emerging from prison, “so there would be a disproportionate black exodus from prison that as a result would be reflected in a lowering of the incarceration-rate ratio,” he said. 
It's also the result of a decade's worth of chipping away at mandatory minimums and other harsh sentencing guidelines by the Supreme Court. Heaven knows it has nothing to do with brain dead politicians and the dysfunctional legislative process.

But while the news is good regarding racial disparities in prison, one thing hasn't changed: it's still the poor who are more likely to end up in the hoosegow, and those getting out are just as likely to remain poor.
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

When researchers try to explain why AIDS is much more prevalent among blacks than whites, they point to the consequences of incarceration, which disrupts steady relationships and can lead to high-risk sexual behavior. When sociologists look for causes of child poverty and juvenile delinquency, they link these problems to the incarceration of parents and the resulting economic and emotional strains on families. 

Some families, of course, benefit after an abusive parent or spouse is locked up. But Christopher Wildeman, a Yale sociologist, has found that children are generally more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. Boys left fatherless become more physically aggressive. Spouses of prisoners become more prone to depression and other mental and physical problems.
So we take the good with the bad, in that sense. The invisible punishments of mass incarceration will continue in terms of poverty, lost futures, disenfranchisement, and a new Generation Incarceration (the children whose lives have been decimated because of incarcerated parents).

We may be rectifying some of the more stupid polices from the 80's and 90's, and we may finally be addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and getting "smart on crime." But like any good bender, the hangover and tab has come due. 

And just because we may be in "rehab" from our drunken binge of imprisonment, it doesn't mean we (and those who have been victimized by a criminal justice system run amok) won't be paying for the sloppy spree for decades more to come.

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