Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jena, O. J. and the Jailing of Black America

Even after removing racial bias in our judicial and prison system, disproportionate numbers of young black men will continue to be incarcerated.

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This first sentence is amazingly incorrect. Race and social class have never been removed from the judicial and prison systems. The bulk of the criminal justice system is about race and social class. From the inception of "child saving movement" to death row, the criminal justice system exists to process large numbers of the surplus labor pool.

Here is the part of the writer's argument:

America has more than two million citizens behind bars, the highest absolute and per capita rate of incarceration in the world. Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison; blacks are incarcerated at over eight times the white rate.

The effect on black communities is catastrophic: one in three male African-Americans in their 30s now has a prison record, as do nearly two-thirds of all black male high school dropouts. These numbers and rates are incomparably greater than anything achieved at the height of the Jim Crow era. What’s odd is how long it has taken the African-American community to address in a forceful and thoughtful way this racially biased and utterly counterproductive situation.

How, after decades of undeniable racial progress, did we end up with this virtual gulag of racial incarceration?

These numbers clearly support disparity, but do they indicate discrimination? To answer this, we have to compare the crimes committed by whites and the punishments imposed. We also have to look to the law to examine social class biases. The study of white-collar crime reveals that more people are killed and injured and more money is lost than from the actions of all street criminals combined. But the reaction from the media, the public, and the criminal justice system is very dissimilar to the treatment given to street criminals.

Jeff Reiman, in the Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, argues that the focus on lower class criminality diverts attention away from the crimes of the upper class.

This NY Times article also provides some insight into the problem, but I believe it extends into states and communities that are predominately white.

Part of the answer is a law enforcement system that unfairly focuses on drug offenses and other crimes more likely to be committed by blacks, combined with draconian mandatory sentencing and an absurdly counterproductive retreat from rehabilitation as an integral method of dealing with offenders. An unrealistic fear of crime that is fed in part by politicians and the press, a tendency to emphasize punitive measures and old-fashioned racism are all at play here.

The State of Idaho bears witness to the "net widening" that continues each and every day. The assembly line justice grinds up people everyday. And the citizens of this state are oblivious to the carnage. Pseudo-conservative elected officials focus on keeping taxes low and in appearing to be tough on crime. The result is that the criminal justice industrial complex grows at the expense of education and health and welfare budgets, yet fails the citizens of Idaho by delivering on the promise to do something about crime. Locking up people with mental health issues and over criminalizing drug use has resulted in one of the highest per capita incarceration rates, yet virtually no treatment options are provided in a state with a very high suicide rate. But Idaho is not the only state in this predicament.

Rationality and accountability are in short supply in our legislative bodies and our criminal justice system.

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