Insight News

Feb 09th

Build it and they will come: jailing Black men

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Late this summer, an article appeared in the New York Times that stunned me. Late this summer, an article appeared in the New York Times that stunned me. A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute reported that there are five Black men in prison today for every black man who was incarcerated in 1980. In 1980, about 143,000 Black men were in jail or prison compared to nearly 792,000 in 2000.

These numbers, while confirming what we all know to be true, are far larger than I had imagined. America entered the 21st Century with over two million of its citizens, of all races, behind bars. Since human nature is not likely to change in the space of twenty years, these huge jumps must be attributed to changes in public policy. One explanation is certainly the prison building boom that has occurred since 1980. We have four times as many inmates today because we have four times the space we had twenty years ago.

Another explanation is the disposition of drug offenses. The Justice Policy Institute has done another study that addresses the imprisonment of drug offenders. The number of people imprisoned for drug offenses first surpassed the number of incarcerations for violent crime in 1989 and continues to this day. There are now about the same number of people behind bars for drug offenses as were incarcerated for ALL crimes in 1980. Changes in public policy regarding punishment for drug offenses have had a great impact on young Black men. Even though surveys consistently show similar drug usage rates for young Blacks and whites, far more Blacks end up in jail.

We have to look at the cost of these policies to the African American community. For example, twenty years ago, there were three times as many Black men enrolled in college than confined in prison. Today the ratio is almost one to one. While we must be mindful that it is primarily young men who attend college and the prison population includes all ages, these devastating figures bring us face to face with the loss of potential and the loss of opportunity for our community.

When $9 billion is being spent to hold drug offenders alone, we know that's $9 billion NOT being spent on educating young Black men. That is a public policy decision that was made twenty years ago that is now devastating our community. Here in Minneapolis, less than half of African American kids pass any part of the Minnesota Basic Standards Test that is required for high school graduation. More than one out of three African American students drop out before graduation. Our public education system is not prepared to deal with this but our prison system is.

Sources: "Study Finds Big Increase in Black Men as Inmates Since 1980", by Fox Butterfield, New York Times, August 28, 2002

"Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States, Justice Policy Institute, a project of the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

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