Jess Rigelhaupt: Mass incarceration hasn't made us safer

By Jess Rigelhaupt

The Free Lance-star

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

More than half of prisoners are African-American and 19 percent are Latino, which is significantly out of proportion to the population of the country. Some of the statistics are alarming: One in 30 men ages to 20 to 34 is incarcerated, but one in nine black men in that age group is behind bars. More than half of young African-American men in major cities are under the control of the criminal justice system or have criminal records.

The racial disparities in mass incarceration are troubling, especially because they have little connection to crime rates. The major cause of prison growth has been the war on drugs, and it has disproportionately affected people of color. Yet drug use and drug selling rates are similar across racial lines. One government study has shown that white youths are a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than African-American youths. "Although the majority of drug users and dealers nationwide are white," Alexander explains, "three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino."

Why is there such a disparity? The war on drugs has been fought in urban communities of color. Despite reliable data that shows drug use (which would logically include drug selling) is highest in rural America, the war on drugs has not been fought on this terrain. Urban communities of color have borne the brunt of America's failed war on drugs and the subsequent effects of mass incarceration.

The problems of mass incarceration do not end at the prison walls. There are 7.3 million people under correctional control above and beyond the 2.3 million behind bars. A person labeled a criminal can lose citizenship rights. Mass incarceration has led to increased political disenfranchisement for African-Americans: One in seven African-American men has lost the right to vote, and in some states that rate is one in four.

In addition, the Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Through redistricting, mass incarceration has provided increased political power to largely white and rural regions where prisons are built. Many states bar felons from jury service for life; Alexander estimates that 30 percent of African-American men have a lifetime ban from jury service. A criminal record can legally exclude a person from public benefits, including educational, food and housing assistance.

Mass incarceration threatens the country's fiscal health, our democracy and our belief in equality. We must end it. We need to think beyond prisons as economic development. We need to stop investing taxpayer dollars in failed policies and failed institutions. Ending mass incarceration can better focus investment in institutions — schools, early childhood education, drug and alcohol treatment, housing and job programs — that are vital to America's future and more effectively address social problems.

A good start would be the passage of Sen. Webb's legislation for a bipartisan commission to study the problem of mass incarceration.

Grounded in his views on love and forgiveness, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that systems of inequality rely on "conscientious blindness" and indifference. There are alternatives to prisons, and we cannot be indifferent to ending mass incarceration.

Jess Rigelhaupt is an assistant professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington. Readers may send him email at jmrumw.edu. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

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