An increasing number of people, up to and including the Attorney General of the United States, have condemned mass incarceration in the United States. The effects of having 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners housed within our borders are profound.
When, after a nationwide search, he was hired two years ago to serve as superintendent of Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, Robert Runcie began brainstorming ways to close the racial achievement gap. At the time, black students in the sixth-largest district in the country had a graduation rate of only 61 percent compared to 81 percent for white students. To find out why, Runcie, who once headed a management-consulting firm, went to the data.
In New York City, police mistakes get played out on a big stage. In September, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) performance was caught on camera in crowded Times Square when two officers shot at an unarmed suspect, missed him, and hit two bystanders instead. The man had been lurching in and out of traffic and ignoring police commands to stop, and at one point pulled his hand out of his pants as if he had a gun, according to a report in The New York Times.
It was the latest in the department’s two-year run of unintentional shootings of innocents.
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population.
And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details.
I’ve written here, and elsewhere, that “black-on-black crime” as a specific phenomena isn’t a thing. Yes, the vast majority of crimes against African Americans are committed by other African Americans, and yes, black men face a higher murder rate than any other group in the country. But those facts are easily explained by residential segregation and proximity—people commit crimes against those closest to them—and the particular circumstances of many black communities, which are marred by concentrated poverty and nonexistent economic opportunities.
David Silva died during an arrest in Bakersfield, California on the night of May 8. The Kern County sheriff’s department contends that the 33-year-old was drunk and uncooperative and fought back during the arrest. The sheriff’s deputies on the scene also fought back during the arrest—using unreasonable and excessive force, as the civil-rights lawsuit Silva's family filed charges—allegedly beating Silva with batons while he lay on the ground.
One of the accused deputies has the same name as one charged in the 2010 beating of a man that resulted in a $4.5-million court judgment against Kern County. County sheriff Donny Youngblood declined to tell The Los Angeles Times whether he is the same officer.
In reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining, I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate.
If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider.
Criminal justice reform activists have long argued that the “school-to-prison” pipeline—the process that places children in the criminal-justice system for misbehavior in school—has a destructive effect on future outcomes. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research gives a sense of just how destructive. According to economists Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle Jr., juvenile incarceration—one result of getting caught in the pipeline—drastically reduces the probability of completing high school, and substantially increases the odds of adult incarceration. From the paper:
Imagine that the government said the following: There is a terrible threat to Americans' lives that we need to address, and though in the past we've tried, we haven't done enough. This scourge has killed nearly 400,000 Americans over the last decade, and the government wouldn't be doing its job in keeping us safe if it didn't take some extraordinary measures to deal with it. This threat is known as the automobile, and to confront it, we're instituting a new system to keep it from killing so many of us. What we need is information, to understand who has accidents and under what circumstances they occur.
There was once a time when cell phones, like beepers before them, were really only needed by doctors and drug dealers. But in a short time they became ubiquitous, and today nearly nine in ten Americans own mobile phones. That's a lot of phones and a lot of calls, but worry not—the U.S. government is working hard to track each and every one.
In today's Washington, the formation of a bipartisan committee and/or commission is generally reason to cringe. Today, however, Congress created a bipartisan committee that could deserve optimism. The House Committee on the Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will address an extremely severe problem: mass incarceration in the United States.
There is very good reason for the formation of the committee. The rates of incarceration in this country are staggering. The United States imprisons more people per capita than any country in the world—not only far more than any comparable liberal democracy, but more than the world's authoritarian regimes as well. Even worse, this mass incarceration reflects and exacerbates racial and economic inequalities. As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Becky Pettit have shown in chilling detail, mass incarceration has taken a massive toll on racial minorities. One in every 36 Hispanic men over the age of 18—and one in 15 African-American males over the age of 18—are in prison. In many states, convicted felons continue to be formally sanctioned by the state, losing the right to vote or to join certain professions. The informal effects of having a felony conviction are even greater; particularly in a buyer's market for labor, the economic prospects of convicted felons attempting to get a job and put their lives in order are generally bleak.