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Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?


With approximately 2.3 million people in prison or jail, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—by far. Our per capita rate is six times greater than Canada’s, eight times greater than France’s, and twelve times greater than Japan’s. Here, at least, we are an undisputed world leader; we have a 40 percent lead on our closest competitors—Russia and Belarus.

Even so, the imprisoned make up only two thirds of one percent of the nation’s general population. And most of those imprisoned are poor and uneducated, disproportionately drawn from the margins of society. For the vast majority of us, in other words, the idea that we might find ourselves in jail or prison is simply not a genuine concern.

For one group in particular, however, these figures have concrete and deep-rooted implications—African-Americans, especially young black men, and especially poor young black men. African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than that of whites—a disparity that dwarfs other racial disparities. (Black–white disparities in unemployment, for example, are 2–1; in nonmarital childbirth, 3–1; in infant mortality, 2–1; and in net worth, 1–51).

In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30 percent of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population, and that population has skyrocketed. The disparities are greatest where race and class intersect—nearly 60 percent of all young black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five. And the incarceration rate for this group—black male high school dropouts—is nearly fifty times the national average.2

These disparities in turn have extraordinary ripple effects. For an entire cohort of young black men in America’s inner cities, incarceration has become the more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception. And in part because prisons today offer inmates little or nothing in the way of job training, education, or counseling regarding their return to society, ex-offenders’ prospects for employment, housing, and marriage upon release drop precipitously from their already low levels before incarceration.

That in turn makes it far more likely that these ex-offenders will return to criminal behavior—and then to prison. Meanwhile, the incarceration of so many young men means more single-parent households, and more children whose fathers are in prison. Children with parents in prison are in turn seven times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than other children. As Brown professor Glenn Loury puts it in Race, Incarceration, and American Values, we are “creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities.”

The most dramatic effects of this incarceration are concentrated on the most disadvantaged—those who are not only African-American or Latino, but also poor, uneducated, and living in highly segregated ghettos. While roughly 60 percent of black high school dropouts have spent time in prison, only 5 percent of college-educated African-Americans have done so. The indirect consequences of such disparities, however, extend much further. Many people cannot tell whether an African-American is a dropout or college-educated—or, more relevant, a burglar or a college professor, as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates found in July 2009, when he was arrested after trying to get into his own house. The correlation of race and crime in the public’s mind reinforces prejudice that affects every African-American.

Three recent books by scholars who happen to be black men eloquently attest to these broader effects of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. For Loury, “mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society.” For George Washington University law professor Paul Butler, author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, “the two million Americans in prison represent the most urgent challenge to democratic values since the civil rights era.” And for New York University law professor Anthony Thompson, author of Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics, it is critical that we examine “the pervasive interplay of race, power, and politics that infuse and confuse our attitudes about crime.”

Butler expresses the personal character of this issue most urgently. Raised by a single mother in a poor black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Butler graduated cum laude from Yale College and Harvard Law School, clerked for a federal judge, worked for a prestigious Washington law firm, and then became a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s elite unit fighting public corruption—an American success story. Yet he dresses, as he puts it, “in the current fashion, like a thug”; has a “nice-sized chip on [his] shoulder, afflicted with the black man’s thing for respect by any means necessary”; and “[doesn’t] like the police much, even though I work with them every day.”

More to the point, at the same time that Butler was a successful federal prosecutor, he found himself a criminal defendant in the District of Columbia’s Superior Court. Butler was arrested in connection with a petty dispute over a parking space that Butler owned but that a neighbor was “renting” out to others. The neighbor called the police and charged Butler with assault, and Butler was arrested, handcuffed, booked, and prosecuted. At his trial, a police officer lied on the stand, Butler’s landlord refused to testify on his behalf, and Butler himself let his anger get the better of him when he testified. The jury nonetheless acquitted him after ten minutes of deliberation. As Butler puts it:

The system worked for me—to the extent that you can describe a system as “working” when a man is arrested and made to stand trial for a crime he did not commit. At least I was not convicted, which makes me as grateful for my money, my defense attorney, my social standing, my connections, and my legal skills as for my actual innocence.

A few months after this experience, Butler chose to leave his job as a prosecutor. He explains, “My sense of justice has always been big and bulging. What my own personal prosecution expanded is my sense of injustice.” Butler now calls himself a “recovering prosecutor,” and argues that to be a prosecutor is to be “an active participant in a system that defines too many activities as crimes, enforces its laws selectively, and incarcerates far too many of its citizens.” As a law professor, Butler has devoted his life to advocating resistance to the criminal justice system as it stands today.


Until 1975, the United States’ criminal justice system was roughly in line with much of Europe’s. For fifty years preceding 1975, the US incarceration rate consistently hovered around 100 inmates per 100,000; criminologists made careers out of theorizing that the incarceration rate would never change. Around 1975, however, they were proved wrong, as the United States became radically more punitive. In thirty-five years, the incarceration rate ballooned to over 700 per 100,000, far outstripping all other countries.

This growth is not attributable to increased offending rates, but to increased punitiveness. Being “tough on crime” became a political mandate. State and federal legislatures imposed mandatory minimum sentences; abolished or radically restricted parole; and adopted “three strikes” laws that exact life imprisonment for a third offense, even when the offense is as minor as stealing a slice of pizza. Comparing the ratio of convictions to “index crimes” such as murder, rape, and burglary3 between 1975 and 1999 reveals that, holding crime constant, the United States became five times more punitive. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western estimates that the increase in incarceration rates since 1975 can take credit for only about 10 percent of the drop in crime over the same period.4

Much of the extraordinary growth in the prison and jail population is attributable to a dramatic increase in prosecution and imprisonment for drug offenses.5 President Reagan declared a “war on drugs” in 1982, and the states eagerly followed suit. From 1980 to 1997, Loury tells us, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 1,100 percent. Drug convictions alone account for more than 80 percent of the total increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995. In 2008, four of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one in five was for distribution; fully half of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses.6

African-Americans have borne the brunt of this war. From 1985 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent; the number of black drug offenders grew by 465 percent.7 The average time served by African-Americans for drug crimes grew by 62 percent between 1994 and 2003, while white drug offenders served 17 percent more time.8 Though 14 percent of monthly drug users are black, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population, they are arrested and imprisoned at vastly disproportionate rates: 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black as well as 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses.9 Blacks serve almost as much time in prison for drug offenses (average of 58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (average of 61.7 months).10

What should be done about this? Loury rightly demands that we first confront what those facts tell us about our political culture. Were we in John Rawls’s “original position,” with no idea whether we would be born a black male in an impoverished urban home, he asks, would we accept a system in which one out of every three black males born today can expect to spend time in jail during his life?11

If white male babies faced anything like such prospects, the politics of crime would look very different. We would almost certainly see this as an urgent national calamity, and demand a collective investment of public resources to forestall so many going to prison. Politicians would insist that we reduce criminal penalties, decriminalize nonviolent drug offenses, and promote alternatives to incarceration. The fact that there aren’t such calls today—or that if there are, they go largely unheeded—suggests that our criminal justice system is sustainable only because its disparate effects leave the majority off the hook.

But is the majority really off the hook? In fact, the prison boom has high costs for all of us. A new prison opens somewhere in the United States every week. Imprisoning a human being in this country costs a minimum of $20,000 a year, far more than tuition at any of our state universities. National spending on prisons and jails was $7 billion in 1980; it is $60 billion today. Several states now spend more on state prisons than state colleges. We literally cannot afford our political addiction to incarceration.

Moreover, the incarceration boom means that there is also now a boom in prisoners being released. In 2008, approximately 700,000 prisoners were released. At current rates of recidivism, 469,000 of them will be rearrested within three years. We all have an interest in helping this at-risk population avoid a return to a life of crime.

  1. 1

    Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), p. 26.

  2. 2

    Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, p. 18.

  3. 3

    Index crimes are the eight crimes the FBI tracks to produce its annual crime index. They are willful homicide, forcible rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, larceny over $50, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

  4. 4

    Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, p. 187.

  5. 5

    Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, p. 50.

  6. 6

    FBI, Crime in the United States, 2008, Arrest Table, available at www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2008/arrests/index.html.

  7. 7

    Marc Mauer, Intended and Unintended Consequences: State Racial Disparities in Imprisonment (Sentencing Project, 1997), p. 10.

  8. 8

    Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society (Sentencing Project, 2007), pp. 22–23.

  9. 9

    Mauer and King, A 25-Year Quagmire, pp. 2, 19–20.

  10. 10

    Mauer and King, A 25-Year Quagmire, p. 2.

  11. 11

    The Sentencing Project, “Facts About Prison and Prisoners” (April 2009) (citing the Bureau of Justice Statistics), available at www.sentencingproject.org/PublicationDetails.aspx?PublicationID=425.

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