Table of Contents
- Problem Statement
- Literature Review
For years now, discrimination within the criminal justice system has indubitably contributed towards the mass incarceration of African Americans. During the late 60’s President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on crime, however, this was nothing more than a discreet way target the black political movement as well as the black panthers. This was then followed by President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. The war on drugs and the policies that came after it had a big influence on the racial disparities we have now in the prison system. Along with this the established policies are nothing more than a legitimized form of oppression of Black males. Although African Americans only account for only 13.1% of the population (United States Census Buru, 2017) black males accounted for 41.3% of the prison population during 2016 (U.S Department of Justice, 2018). According to Phelps and Pager (2016) one in three black males are expected to be imprisoned for some time during their life span. Along with this, former Black prisoners have a ten percent higher recidivism rate then White males.
The targeted incarceration of Black males along with racial segregation and resource deprivation contributes to the racial disparities within the justice system. There are many dire consequences to the already vulnerable community. For example, even after being release Black males are left with a record that continually limits the opportunities. Jung, Spjeldnes, & Yamatani (2010) suggest that Black men with records “face greater employment barriers, including employer discrimination. Thus, for black men, race-related factors exacerbated challenges to successful societal reentry after release, raising the odds for rearrests researchers need to uncover and further address the individual-based and environmental predictors of recidivism” (Jung, Spjeldnes, & Yamatani, 2010). This in part might be because Black ex-inmates typically return to their same impoverished communities, where they are exposed to more criminal activity. Not only that but there are also less job opportunities. Furthermore, the inability to get a job further influences the racial wealth gap. It also affects their political involvement, since in many States offenders are not allowed to vote. Another consequence of incarceration is that it strains family ties. There is also now a whole generation of Black males that where raised without a father in the home, due to the war on crime. Lastly, something many don’t take into consideration is that “Incarceration is also associated with increased morbidity, stress, and the risk of infectious disease, creating additional long-term health problems for former prisoners” (Johnson and Raphael 2009).
I believe another troubling factor is that overtime after having been labeled so many stereotypes young Black males begin to believe them themselves. Not only is the justice system against them, but a certain image of them is continuously perpetrated in the media. Whether it is the news, rap music or movies the representation of Black males is full stereotypes. Because of this they might find themselves acting out the very same characteristics that the criminal justice system and the media has applied to them.
Sentencing reforms have been the force behind increased racial disparities in imprisonment. Beginning in the 1970s many new legislations such as truth in sentencing, three strikes laws, and sentencing guidelines. Although these new sentencing laws were said to be a race neutral approach because they focused on the crime committed and the defendant’s criminal history “the apparent “color-blind” system then suggests racial and ethnic disparities are a result of differential offending and not a result of racism at the structural level. In actuality, it works to conceal and possibly amplify the racial and ethnic disparities” (Harmon,2011). Whether consciously or unconsciously the biases of the legislators that drafted the laws influenced them not only to label crimes that where more prevalent within the black communities as more dangerous but also to apply what they believed was an appropriate sentence. Furthermore, although judges should enforce the law impartially Harmon (2011) suggest that their decisions are indebtedly impacted by their personal biases towards people of color. The more stereotypical criminal characteristics the defendants possess, the more likely they are to receive harsher sentences. Due to this people of color, particularly Blacks are then given longer sentences. Parole Boards are also more likely to deny probation to minorities and the poor, believing they had unsupportive families and meager job prospects and are likely to reoffend (Harmon,2011).
The study of Harmon (2011) assessed how the changes in sentencing policies across states affected the odds of imprisonment of African Americans and Hispanics in comparison to White imprisonment. He analyzed data from 1978-2005 in 49 states, where the differentiation of states that had implemented sentencing reforms and those that had not could be analyzed. His results found that the reforms had increased the imprisonment disparities for Blacks and Hispanics over time. In the states where sentencing guidelines where fully implemented Black imprisonment had a 6.5% increase. Similarly, there was also an increase in states that had implemented the truth in sentencing and the three strikes policy. Furthermore, his analysis also indicated that Blacks faced more convictions when it came to minor first offense crimes.
Furthermore, being arrested once no matter how minor the offense was puts Black males at a higher risk of recidivism then White males. Jung, Spjeldnes, & Yamatani (2010) conducted a study on the recidivism rates of Black and White ex-inmates, as well the time they were out before being reincarcerated. Their sample group of 12,545 ex-inmates that where released from Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania in 2003. Their analysis proved that “about 12% more Black than White men were rearrested and jailed within 12 months (43.0% versus 31.1%; (j) = .12)” ( Jung, Spjeldnes, & Yamatani, 2010). Their analysis also concluded that Black males were out for a shorter amount of time before being re-incarcerated as comparison to White men. Furthermore, they discovered that there was a correlation in the amount of time spent in jail and the recidivism risk. Meaning, that the longer time they spent in jail the higher the risk of recidivism. In fact, every additional day spent in increased the recidivism risk by 0.1%. This is something of great importance because “sentencing practices, – tend to subject black men to harsher and lengthier sentences compared with white men” (Jung, Spjeldnes, & Yamatani, 2010).
Social inequality is another factor that also puts Black males at risk of incarceration. Harmon (2011) believes that the social inequalities faced by people of color, such as poverty and unemployment also affect sentencing disparities. Such societal factors are “associated with criminal activity, likelihood of arrest, likelihood of having a public defender, and so on, and on the informal level they can be used as a social “cue” to indicate level of culpability or likelihood of reoffending” (Harmon, 2011). Living in poverty might not allow you to hire a lawyer and instead make you settle for a public defender, which often are over worked and not as effective in getting charges dismissed. As a result, Black males are more likely to take guilty pleas on minor offenses that could have been dismissed where they to have a lawyer. Although minor offenses might not carry a lengthy jail term, having it on your record would likely result in a severe sentence if they were to commit another crime.
Sykes and Marot (2016) analyzes the influence incarceration has on the racial wealth gap. It is important to note that families “share the social, economic, and health consequences of the former inmate. Parental incarceration is associated with increased material hardship and downward mobility for families along with child homelessness and a larger reliance on government programs” (Sykes and Marot, 2016). Often, those that have been incarcerated find it harder to accumulate wealth, obtain homeowner ship and often fall into debt. The analysis determined that the incarceration of one family member is in fact associated with a decline in assets. When it comes to the comparison of Black and White households the level of assets in Black households is 80.4% lower than that of White. In 2010 the estimated black-white wealth gap was almost $148,000. According to Sykes and Marot (2016) “highlighting the associations across institutionalization, race, and wealth, we show that the disproportionate incarceration of young black men with limited education also helps explain these wealth disparities at a household level” (Sykes and Marot, 2016).
While Phelps and Pager (2016) believe decarceration would reduce racial disparities and the experience of imprisonment among black families, it has the potential to reduce racial inequalities for children and adults by reducing the number of “missing men” and de-normalizing the prison experience (Phelps & Pager, 2016). Decarceration means reducing the amount of time inmates spend in jail by moving them to community corrections, such as probation and parole. They believe sentencing reforms and establishing policies that decriminalize and downgrade criminal charges, particularly drug offenses is necessary to achieve this. Similarly, reevaluation of the three strikes law would also help significantly reduce the number of African Americans that end up doing life for drug possession.
Another approach is justice reinvesting, which would consist of reducing the amount of money spent on correction facilities and reinvesting in disadvantaged communities. Equipping the probation department with proper resources for them to establishing more services and programs is key to reducing the recidivism rate. Such programs could include, job training and placement, counseling and medical resources. Reinvesting in such programs in Black communities is of great importance because it is believed that criminal behaviors is a reaction to social inequalities. Furthermore, community level efforts would give black males the opportunity to remain in the life of their children
It is now evident that the sentencing policies that fallowed after the so-called war on crime and war on drugs was nothing more than a war on communities of color, particularly Black males. The policy reforms that where to be supposed to be race neutral are indebtedly tied to the cultural stereotypes of the policy makers that wrote them, and the personal biases of the judges that impose them. As a result, racial disparities as a direct result of the criminal justice system continue to grow. Policies such as the long mandatory sentencing for possession of crack cocaine in comparison to cocaine simply because it is more predominately used in Black communities is nothing more than a form of legitimized justification for the imprisonment of Black people. Unless criminal policy reforms take place and more money is relocated into unfranchised communities there will be no stopping the high incarceration rates of Black males. However, for this to happened Black people must be more represented within the political institutions. An ideal step towards this is fallowing Florida’s lead and giving ex-felons back their right to vote. Unless Black people are equally and unbiasedly represented within the system we will continue to have generations of families that suffer from the targeted incarceration of Black males.