The fundamental assumption of our criminal justice system is that (at least most of) the people who find themselves in it are criminals deserving of their punishment. Relying on our notions of free will (they chose to commit a crime) and egoism (I haven’t struggled to NOT commit a crime so they shouldn’t have had a hard time either), we have faith that the broad contours of the system work, at least at the task of apprehending and incarcerating criminals.
What we often don’t consider is how our “individual decisions” are framed by a context–one that shapes not only motivation and possibility, but literally what our individual decisions mean.
Drug and alcohol addiction do not present themselves in higher rates in poor communities of color. Rich whites and poor Blacks and Latinos are as likely to be addicted as are poor whites and Asians, and rich Blacks and Latinos, and so on. A near avalanche of studies shows this. Addiction presents itself in society the way you would expect when you consider it a disease.
So, Americans tend to misuse illegal drugs at a rate equivalent to their share of the overall population. Yet African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than whites. In the case of African Americans, they are 13 times as likely.
A complex convergence of policies and societal forces work together to constitute this disparity. Penalties for more expensive drugs (like cocaine) are less severe than penalties for cheaper drugs (like crack); whites are more likely than others to be offered mandated treatment as their sentence rather than prison time; studies show charges for the same drug offenses are brought more frequently and with harsher consequences for men of color; and so on.
But I’m not just trying to get you to think about racial inequality in the charging and sentencing of drug offenders.
The recent NAACP report “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate” presents the scope of the problem. There are currently 2.3 million people in the US who are incarcerated. Most of them (6 out of 10) are people of color.
The total imprisoned population in the US is 25% of the world total population of prisoners. Though the US represents only 5% of the world’s population we house 25% of its prisoners.
As the report suggests, we have created a prison system that is essentially “warehousing” addicts and people with mental health issues. We are spending a disproportionate amount of money to imprison a small percentage of our overall population that comes from a small handful of communities as well. As the report shows, prison rates are highest in a small handful of communities where populations of color predominate and education resources atrophy. We are seemingly comfortable with the fact that it is more likely for a young black or Latino male living today to end up in prison than in a 4-year college.
If you believe that everyone who is in prison is there as a result of an equitable system that is controlled only by their free choice, then you have to account for your fundamental assumption that men of color are more dangerous than white men. (and, in case you’re not feeling racist yet, there is not substantiated research to show that they are.)
The NACCP report can be accessed by CLICKING HERE.