“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander told a standing room only house at the Pasadena Main Library this past Wednesday, the first of many jarring points she made in a riveting presentation. Alexander, currently a law professor at Ohio State, had been brought in to discuss her year-old bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Growing crime rates over the past 30 years don’t explain the skyrocketing numbers of black —and increasingly brown —men caught in America’s prison system. “Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” she said, even though studies have shown that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or above blacks.
In some black inner-city communities, four of five black youth can expect to be caught up in the criminal justice system during their lifetimes. As a consequence, a great many black men are disenfranchised, said Alexander —prevented because of their felony convictions from voting and from living in public housing, discriminated in hiring, excluded from juries, and denied educational opportunities.
The War on Drugs is like America’s other war addiction. It wont be easy to reduce the spending. We have built a massive war machine —one bigger than all the other countries in the world combined —with millions of well-paid defense industry jobs and billions of dollars at stake. “If we were to return prison populations to 1970 levels, before the War on Drugs began,” she said. “More than a million people working in the system would see their jobs disappear.”
Part two of this series of articles focuses on what is driving the growth in the prison population and prison-based gerrymandering.
Prison Population Growth
Many of the people who read Dick’s article questioned whether the natural growth in the U.S. population could explain the growth of the prison population. The Justice Department released a report that makes it clear that the rate of growth in the prison population far exceeds the rate of growth in the U.S. population.
ABC News ran a report in response to the Justice Department’s announcement that the United States had 2.3 million inmates in custody. Speaking of the Justice Department report, ABC News said:
The report provides a breakdown, noting “of the 2.3 million inmates in custody, 2.1 million were men and 208,300 were women. Black males represented the largest percentage (35.4 percent) of inmates held in custody, followed by white males (32.9 percent) and Hispanic males (17.9 percent).”
The United States leads the industrialized world in incarceration. In fact, the U.S. rate of incarceration (762 per 100,000) is five to eight times that of other highly developed countries, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice think tank.
Census residence rules require that people who are incarcerated be counted at their places of incarceration on Census Day as opposed to their home addresses while, at the same time, almost without exception these people do not have the right to vote. Most prisons are constructed in rural areas yet most people who are incarcerated come from urban areas. The shift in population from urban to rural increases the political clout of rural communities while decreasing the political clout of urban communities.
The NAACP Legal Defense fund reports: This residence rule skews the balance of political power by inflating the population counts of communities where prisons are located by including the non-voting prison populations in these districts during the redistricting process. Over the last several decades, the percentage of Americans incarcerated in prisons has increased four-fold. Incarcerated persons are often held in areas that are geographically and demographically far removed from their home communities. For instance, although non-metropolitan counties contain only 20% of the national population, they host 60% of new prisons.
In addition, because Latinos and African Americans are incarcerated at three to seven times the rate of Whites, where incarcerated people are counted has tremendous implications for how African-American and Latino populations are reflected in the census, and, consequently, how these communities are impacted through redistricting.
This is a Suspicious News Brief. Read more at LA Progressive.
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