Last Sunday I was invited to attend a talk titled “Unpacking Mass Incarceration” at the Resurrected Life Community Church. Sitting in a wooden pew toward the back of the room, each of the five speakers described in detail their criminal backgrounds and offenses they had committed earlier in their lives. While I was stunned by some of these crimes (armed robbery, assault of a police officer, and gang activity), I respected the fact that each individual came forward to apologize for their crimes.
In front of a mostly white audience, I wasn’t sure how receptive the crowd would be to the words spoken by the NAACP affiliates, but their applause let me know that they seek change as well. The group led a discussion which started with the statistic that, since 2002, the United States has the highest incarceration rate. What surprised me, however, was why there were so many citizens in prison. One of the lawyers on stage told the audience that over 80 percent of inmates who were being held in federal prisons in Philadelphia were being held simply because their case had not been reviewed in front of a judge. Furthermore, the lawyer explained that blacks make up a disproportionate share of the prison population, with young black males being more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than a comparably aged white male.
In 2013, according to FBI Statistics, 2.5 million people who were black or African American were arrested; of those, 365,785 were arrested under drug abuse violation charges. According to the NAACP, African Americans represent 12.5 percent of illicit drug users, but 29 percent of those individuals were arrested for drug offenses and 33 percent of those were eventually incarcerated. This problem is exacerbated by mandatory minimum sentencing laws which came into effect under the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.”
Since the introduction of these laws in 1986, the U.S. prison population exploded from just over half a million people, to around 2.25 million Americans by the year 2010. While the crack and cocaine epidemic has largely faded away, many federal laws have yet to be changed to assist those who were originally imprisoned for marijuana related offenses. According to the New York Times, in 2015, “arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana exceeded those for all violent crimes last year…” with “…574,641” citizens being arrested.
If we wish to shrink the prison population Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws must be reformed. Additionally, we should also create federally funded programs to educate and assist those who are repeat offenders. In federal prisons alone (2012), 12.4 percent of drug offenses were related to marijuana trafficking. While I personally feel uncomfortable with marijuana being used in public spaces, I still support responsibly legalizing and taxing the drug and removing marijuana from the Controlled Substance Schedules.
What comes after prison for most inmates, however, is not a fresh slate, but a tainted one. While I believe that longer prison sentences for violent crime offenders is absolutely necessary, there is no realistic way for those former criminals to get a job. Rehabilitation and reintegration cannot occur if our former prisoners have no viable options for employment, and employers discriminate against those individuals. According to the Brennan Center at NYU, a study found that “60 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed after one year of release. Half of them end up back in a life of crime.” Some states have introduced “ban the box” laws, which discourages or completely eliminates the ability for a business to ask about a potential employee’s criminal record.
While I personally would be wary about hiring a former convict, and some believe it is unjust to reward those who have made poor choices, it is clear that this cycle is neverending. By stacking the odds overwhelmingly against former prisoners, they perpetually return to a life of crime, stress, and unemployment. It is necessary that American businesses step out of their comfort zones and give these people another chance; if employers don’t, those men and women will return to their communities just as they were before.
If you dig deeper under the surface, you can see what these laws have done to black communities around America. According to the 2011 Census Bureau, 67 percent of all black children under 18 were living in singleparent families, and 73 percent of black births were considered “non-marital”. Not growing up in a two-parent household can have incredibly detrimental effects on a child’s livelihood and development, and makes them severely more likely to become affiliated in criminal activity. The Sentencing Project warned that, “if current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.” Although you would need a statistician to draw a correlation between this “1 in 3” statistic, and 67 percent of all black children being raised in single-parent households, it creates a very grim scenario.
It’s plausible to suggest that drug enforcement laws and higher incarceration rates of blacks are tearing their communities apart, causing higher crime rates, affecting graduation rates, and essentially prohibiting re-employment after prison sentences. This deadly concoction of arrest rates, joblessness, and single-parent households continues to undermine the black community and cause widespread hopelessness.
In order to solve these problems, I think several initiatives need to take place to eliminate this inescapable cycle we are witnessing. I would like to see if “ban the box” initiatives would drastically reduce the unemployment rate of recently released prisoners in larger states like California, Texas, Florida, New York, etc.
The next thing I would suggest is to retroactively reduce sentences for those who have been incarcerated in both state and Federal prisons, and develop pipelines to help them find employment after they are released. Lastly, states and the federal government need to work together to help companies create jobs in inner cities where crime is most prevalent. In Chicago, for example, 47 percent of young black men are neither in school nor working, which has led many to pursue work in crime since it pays better than minimum wage opportunities in the area. A bleak situation for all involved, something must be done.