The mounting cost of incarceration

WASHINGTON – In communities around the country, Black people are missing. Neighborhoods languish. Dreams deferred rot in distant warehouses we call prisons. The similarities between the correctional system and slavery are eerie: Families ripped apart.

WASHINGTON – In communities around the country, Black people are missing. Neighborhoods languish. Dreams deferred rot in distant warehouses we call prisons. The similarities between the correctional system and slavery are eerie: Families ripped apart. Traditions lost or never made. The shipment of flesh, the pipeline that nearly guarantees Black children go from the cradle to the prison, the insane profits made by warehousing human beings, the burden borne forever by those labeled as “convicts.”

Today, a brutal recession which dictates the need to cut budgets and proof that mass incarceration does not reduce crime is changing conversations in legislative halls around the country. Some politicians, who in the past have only paid attention to fearful constituents who want to make sure people who commit crimes are locked up, are beginning to consider alternatives to imprisonment. Meanwhile prison reform advocates are wondering if a Black president and a Black attorney general means a quicker end to the disparity in incarceration between Blacks and whites.

Prison “was never a tool to fight crime. It is an instrument to manage deprived and dishonored populations, which is quite a different task,” says Loic Wacquant, a renowned ethnographer and social theorist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Still, speaking by email, Wacquant warns that the journey between slavery and mass incarceration must include two other “peculiar” institutions created to define and confine Blacks: “Jim Crow and the urban ghetto.” Now, he says, “in the post-Civil Rights era, the penal system has gradually been recast to mean Black-and increasingly, Latino.”

“The explosive prison growth of the past 30 years didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t driven primarily by crime rates or broad social and economic forces beyond the reach of state government,” according to a report by the PEW Center on the States entitled, “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.” The report states, “It was the direct result of sentencing, release and other correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and how long they stay.”

Report after report tells exactly who goes to prison. Consider: “One in every three Black males born today can expect to go to prison if current trends continue. More than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities,” according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. “For Black males in their 20s, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day.”

These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the "war on drugs." The Sentencing Project says three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

It may be too early to answer the question about Obama’s administration, though it did announce in April that it favors reform of a 20-year-old law that mandates a sentence of at least five years for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine with intent to distribute and the same penalty for five grams of crack cocaine.

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