African Americans: the Majority
For the last 40 years the United States’ criminal justice system has processed a massive intake in prisoners. In fact, the U.S. has increased its incarceration numbers by 500 percent since 1980, leading to the 2.3 million Americans who are behind bars today (“Mass Incarceration” 763). There are many reasons for these incarceration rates; however, the United States’ “war on drugs” has been the major contributor. According to the Uniform Crime Reports in 2009, fifty percent of the prisoners in federal facilities were incarcerated for drug offenses (Balboni). The aftermath of the tough on crime and war on drugs movements of the eighties and nineties has left America facing one of its most conflicting issues: the highest incarceration rate per capita of any developed nation. With the largest prison system in the world, the U.S. now spends nearly $79 billion annually on corrections (“Mass Incarceration” 763).
The rise in incarceration has also brought with it a very uneven picture of the U.S. criminal justice system. The increase in incarceration has disproportionately affected African Americans. According to the 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics, 50 percent of the prison population is African American, even though African Americans only comprised 13 percent of the total U.S. population (Spohn 460). Uneducated black men living in impoverished communities seem to be the overwhelming demographic of arrests. About half of all African American men without a high school diploma will at some point in their lives go to prison (Gopnick). It is said that for each black male who graduates from college, there are one hundred others within the U.S. prison system (Lanier 170). The targeting of minorities within our criminal justice system has led to many infractions of basic human rights. Minorities have not been treated as equal before the eyes of the law, have been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment before and after arrest, and have had their civil rights taken from them by the U.S. criminal justice system.
Every American man and woman has a right to be treated equally before the eyes of the law, regardless of gender, religion or race. Unfortunately, evidence shows that this is not the case for those of minority descent. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. This meant that if a person was tried and convicted in federal court with at least five grams of crack they would receive a minimum of five years in prison, and a minimum of ten years for 50 grams or more (Weikel 1). These minimum sentences were designed to capture the most dangerous drug peddlers and kingpins, as well as persuade people from drug activity. The results, however, have placed more and more petty, non-violent users and low level street peddlers behind bars for longer periods of time, the most of which have been predominantly African American. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whites are more likely to use crack than any other racial group, yet 96% of the federal crack defendants are nonwhite (Weikel 1). About 75 to 90 percent of the drug offenders sent to prison in seven states are Black, and in New York, Blacks and Latinos represent about 94 percent of all drug related arrests (Small 897). A tactic federal agents have been known to use that adversely affects minority incarcertaions is called “bargaining up.” Agents approach a dealer several times each time asking for a larger volume of crack until that dealer broke the 50 gram threshold. At this point, the justice system could then sentence them for the ten year minimum (Weikel 1). It is difficult to see equality before the law with such blatant evidence to support an underlying bias is our criminal justice system.
As many headlines have portrayed recently, the right to be free from malicious abuse and torture is violated regularly by the United States’ law enforcement officials. One of the most infamous incidents was the L.A. police beating of Rodney King, an African American truck driver. On March 3rd, 1991, twenty three officers stood and watched as three of their fellow officers brutally beat, kicked, and shocked Rodney King with batons and stun guns; he was hospitalized for his injuries that were so severe he had to have reconstructive surgery on his face. This incident led to the infamous L.A. race riots when the white officers who openly beat Mr. King in the middle of the street were later acquitted of all charges. Since then, there have been many incidents of brutality and excessive force after the police have detained their suspects as well. In 2015, Freddy Gray, a 25 year old Black man, was arrested for what was thought to be an illegal switch blade. He was cuffed with his hands behind his back and put into a police van. However, the police failed to secure him with a seat belt and took him for what many have deemed as “rough rides,’’ an apparent staple of this law enforcement team. Freddy Gray died of injuries to his spine while at the hands of the Baltimore police, all of whom were acquitted by a judge (“Police Brutality”). As stories such as these become more prevalent in our news, it appears that the right to be free from unjust torture and cruel punishment does not apply if one is of minority descent and confronted by those who are sworn to protect and serve.
Once prisoners pay their debt to society, they are expected to reintegrate themselves back into their communities and adjust to becoming a regular citizen once again. Truth is that they are typically faced with much adversity for the rest of their lives. Many of their civil liberties are taken away from them. They cannot vote, receive federal welfare, public housing assistance, federal grants or support to go back to school, and even if they would like to pay for school out of pocket, it is nearly impossible to find a well-paying job as a convicted felon (Pinard 1214). In 2013, the unemployment rate former prisoners was 60 percent (“Mass Incarceration” 765). With little opportunity for personal growth, ex-felons usually return to the means of making a living that led to their incarceration in the first place, perpetuating the cycle of imprisonment, without the possibility of true rehabilitation.
The overrepresentation of minorities in prison is associated with a historical racial bias that has plagued the United States since its founding. It’s no secret that the United States, especially the antebellum plantations of the south, relied heavily upon slave labor to build a strong economy. After the Civil War, the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, and the reconstruction era of the southern United States, the south remained resentful towards the African American population. As a result, the Jim Crow laws were enacted, segregating people of color from whites in schools, jobs, housing and public meeting areas. Also, ninety five percent of the prisoners found in the southern states penal system between 1865 and 1890 were African American (Small 899). They were leased out to businesses and farmers for labor purposes. Similarly, the purposeful concentration of minorities into poor communities, the lack of education provided, and the targeting of minorities by law enforcement through the “War on Drugs” is eerily reminiscent of the post-Civil War Southern states’ actions to disempower Black males.
Housing discrimination during the 20th century kept minorities within poorer communities. One such effort in the nineteen thirties was known as “red lining.” After the Great Depression, there was a need to reestablish the economy by strengthening the housing market, which was achieved through building new homes and writing new mortgages. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), however, wanted to make sure that their investments were going to flourish. So, they hired local real-estate professionals in several different areas to create maps of the communities to assess risk. These “residential securities” maps were color coordinated to the degree of “risk” in a particular neighborhood. Red anywhere on these maps indicated higher risk; Red marked areas also happened to be poor minority communities, hence the name “red lining.” The HOLC then used these maps to channel mortgages away from these zones (Marshall 56). In 2010, census data revealed that several of these neighborhoods, such as those “redlined” in Louisville, KY, now have poverty rates above 40 percent. Also, 41 to 75 percent of the mortgage applications were denied between 2011 and 2013 for four of these neighborhoods (Marshall 56). Records from the U.S. Census Bureau from 1950 to 2000 show that the home ownership and the average home value for African Americans were consistently lower than the rest of the country. In 2000, the home ownership rate for African Americans was about 48 percent compared to 72 percent nationally (Loubert 20). Even today, valuable home ownership remains an elusive luxury for many African Americans.
The lack of an education is also another factor that keeps minorities living within poor areas. Education today is not blatantly denied, as it was during slavery and Jim Crow, but schools in poor minority neighborhoods are not funded as well as schools in more affluent areas. In the late 19th and early 20th century, funding was purposefully channeled away from schools African Americans attended, but now, it is done more discreetly. In many cases, funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. Therefore, when property values are low, such as in “redlined” areas, there is much less money for local schools (Loubert 19-20). African Americans also suffer from wage inequality; the average black man makes about 20 to 25 percent less than his white counterpart. Consequently, African American families that cannot afford better homes, or cannot get a loan in a better neighborhood, are subjected to having their children attend these poorly funded schools. Without a proper education, teens within poor minority communities are more likely to rely on illegal drug activity for financial support, than to finish their K-12 schooling and find a proper job. This illegal activity and lack of education is indicated by statistics showing that 70 percent of the U.S. prison population is illiterate (Balboni). Ironically, each state in the U.S. spent three times more per pupil for prisoners than they did for public school students, according to a 2003 Children’s Defense Fund report (Lanier 172). The likelihood an individual will do time in prison at some point in his or her life is not only an issue of race and poverty, but the level of educational attainment. Living in poorer communities with underfunded public schools almost guarantees minority students will lack the education and functional literacy they need to find gainful employment.
All these socio-historical factors lead to the major contribution to the mass imprisonment of African Americans, the United States’ “war on drugs.” While it still remains that Whites are more likely to use drugs, typically, African Americans and minorities are targeted as the main culprits in America’s fight against narcotics. As former “Drug Czar” William Bennett stated, “The typical cocaine user is a white male, high school graduate employed full time, and living in small metropolitan area or suburb” (qtd. in Small 897). Yet federal agents choose to concentrate their efforts almost exclusively in poor minority neighborhoods. Federal agents have admitted that they do not stakeout white neighborhoods because they can make more arrests in the inner city with much less effort (Weikel 1). The additional influx to the population of prisoners requires facilities to house the incarcerated. The prison industrial complex has come to rely on such programs as the war on drugs to fill its facilities throughout the country. Many rural communities rely on prisons as the main supply of income, and private corporations have come to rely on them as well. In 2013 the two largest private prison companies in the U.S. made a profit of $2.9 billion. These private prisons contract out labor to private corporations like Microsoft, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret and Target for wages recorded as low as $.23 an hour (“Mass Incarceration” 764). The use of prisoners as cheap labor and a source of revenue for private contractors continue to be an incentive to keep the prisons’ occupancy high rather than rehabilitating the inmates.
Supporters of the government’s war on drugs contend that enforcements like minimum sentencing have had success in punishing the high-level drug king-pins. A 2009 report by the Federal Sentencing Commission revealed that, over all, lower level drug offenders received less harsh sentencing than the higher up offenders (Dahl 278). However, the number of people and the racial profile of the individuals most frequently sentenced remains questionable. Because of this, many movements, organizations, and people are taking action to curtail America’s epidemic of mass incarceration of minorities.
Many advocates have taken been multiple steps to decrease the prison population of non-violent drug offenders. In 1993, Senator Ted Kennedy introduced a bill known as the “safety valve” provision that allowed federal judges to decide not to implement mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant did not have more than one other point of criminal history, was non-violent, did not have a deadly weapon at the time of arrest, and was considered to be a low-level dealer (Dahl 272). However, very often black criminals do not see much relief through the “safety valve” provision because many of them have multiple past convictions. But because many of these crimes are classified as non-violent drug offences, there has been some consideration of expanding the “safety valve” provision. A 2011 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission suggested to Congress that it should consider expanding the safety valve provision to include more non-violent offenders with more than one past offense (Dahl 294). Another initiative was the passing of the Equal Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced the penalty for crack cocaine to powder cocaine by an 18:1 ratio; this ensured that those arrested for simply possessing the drug would not be susceptible to minimum sentencing, but rather an increased fine (U.S. Sentencing Commission). Expanding provisions such as these should greatly decrease the African American populations within some U.S. prisons.
In order to eradicate the perpetual cycling of minorities through the U.S. prison systems, the first step federal, state, and local governments can take is to increase investment in education in traditionally minority communities. Research shows that people who have been educated in a district that spends more money per student will earn more money later in their adult lives (Loubert 24). Therefore, there needs to be a nation-wide effort to shift desperately needed funds to poorer schools. Such efforts have already taken place in several parts of the country. For example, Kentucky has allocated half a cent of sales tax, which will raise about $500 million annually, to help fund schools in poor districts (Flanigan). Perhaps, if the United States would shift funds away from prisons and into education, the prison population would dwindle, and less funding would be needed to house and support prisoners. Ironically, state spending for corrections increased 166 percent between 1985 and 2000, while spending for education increased only 24 percent. About fifty percent of the inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offences do not have their high school diploma or GED (Lanier 173). If higher education leads to less criminal activity, then the logic follows that each passing high school or college graduate should equal fewer criminals behind bars.
An unorthodox idea that may help alleviate economically poor and disenfranchised communities is the implementation of co-housing facilities for families dealing with the incarceration of a family member. Some of the money that is used annually for public housing assistance could be allocated for the specific purpose of keeping families from becoming homeless because of the incarceration of a parent. One in twenty-eight children have a parent in prison; in African American communities, it jumps to one in fourteen. Having a parent in prison increases the possibility of that child going to prison later in life (Lanier 174). To end the vicious cycle that these families experience, there is a need to strengthen their households. Single parents often work more than one job to support their families, which gives them little time to cook meals, teach, and spend time with their children. What co-housing does is help strengthen and support communities through collaborating and socializing. These separate households share common activity buildings and areas. Each family takes part in preparing meals on different nights of the week, which helps single parents working a double shift, feed their families. The children play together in common social areas and workshops, forming a strong bond with kids in a similar social situation, which in turn, may keep them from joining a street gang for support.
Another key ingredient of the co-housing model is the influence of other adults around the community to give the communal and emotional support a child needs and would ideally receive if they had both parents at home. This initiative would give these disenfranchised communities of single-parent households the dire support that they need for their children to foster a better foundation for the rest of their lives. Without education and community support, those living in poorer, African American communities will continue to be victims of the nation’s war on drugs. Their resulting incarceration denies them their human right to equality before the law, freedom from harsh punishment, and the denial of their civil liberties.
Law enforcement, the judicial system, and the United States’ prison industrial complex has devastated the African American community over the last several decades. African Americans have been subjected to discrimination and violence, and their communities have been torn apart by these injustices. It is time that the United States starts making its greatest wrong a right by facing its past. The nation must recognize the forces that have led the nation to lock up so many of its citizens so disproportionately, threatening the basic human rights of many Americans based on their race and ethnicity. The darkest time in U.S. history continues to impact the nation to this very day despite efforts to change the historic bias in our criminal justice system. Fortunately, bipartisan support for decriminalizing certain drugs and decreasing sentences for non-violent drug offenders is growing as Republicans and Democrats have both realized the unjust impact and inherent racial bias in America’s war on drugs. However, currently the Trump administration has made it clear that it plans to continue more “tough on crime” initiatives reminiscent of the 80’s and 90’s. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been an outspoken advocate for continuing mandatory minimum sentences and using harsh sentences on non-violent drug offenders. Sessions has been quoted saying “Drug trafficking is inherently violent” (Tanfani and Halper). He also believes that there is more violence associated with marijuana “than one would think,” despite the evidence of decreases in violence in areas where marijuana has been legalized for medicinal purposes (Gass). Sessions has already reversed policies of the former administration including former Attorney General Eric Holder’s policies to reserve the harshest charges for high-level and violent offenders, and President Obama’s initiative to end federal contracts with private prisons (Tanfani and Halper). Although there has been a 14% decline in the federal prison population since the past administration’s efforts to dissuade the use of mandatory sentences, Sessions believes the country will need the private prison space for the “boost in inmate population that he sees coming” (qtd. in Tanfani and Halper). His words are a haunting vision of the past policies that led to the largest prison population in the industrialized world. These new policies could potentially reverse the progress that has been made toward criminal justice reform. The United States must remain vigilant and oppose the ideology of a few men from destroying the progression the United States has made to repent and amend the sins of its past.
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Weikel, Dan. “War on Crack Targets Minorities Over Whites Cocaine: Records show Federal Officials almost Solely Prosecute Nonwhites. U.S. Attorney Denies Race is a Factor. Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext), May 21 1995, pp 1. National Newspapers Core, https://scottsdalecc.edu:2443/login?url=htp://ezproxyscottsdalecc.edu:2105/docview293195132?accountid=227.