Dubious Distinction: US Imprisons More Citizens Than Any Country

The Pew Center on the States, part of the not-for-profit Pew Charitable Trusts headquartered in Washington, DC, released a report last week entitled, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. The report’s principal author, Jennifer Warren, notes that the incarcerated population in the US has grown steadily over the past three decades to reach the point in 2007 where about one in every 100 adults in this country – the actual incarceration rate is one in every 99.1 adults – is now confined in a prison or jail. The total prison population in 2007 was nearly 1.6 million with an additional 723,000 people in local jails. China, the country with the second highest incarceration rate in the world, has about 1.5 million people in its prisons.

The report is significant not only because of the shocking statistics it presents on the US incarceration rate relative to other countries, but also because of the data on the disproportionate incarceration of some groups relative to others and on the costs of incarceration. As the report points out, the one in 100 statistic

“masks far higher incarceration rates by race, age and gender” (p. 5).

Men and women of color, especially young African American and Hispanic men and women, are far more likely to be incarcerated than white men and women. For example, among men, the highest incarceration rate is among African Americans: one in 21, compared with one in 54 for Hispanics and one in 136 for whites. But the rate jumps to one in nine for African American men ages 20-34, the highest rate of any gender, race, or age group. Among women, African Americans again have the highest incarceration rate: one in 279, compared with one in 658 for Hispanics and one in 1,064 for whites. The highest incarceration rate among women is for African American women ages 35-39: one in 100.

According to some commentators who have seen the report, these figures simply show higher crime rates among these groups. As a law professor and former federal judge stated:

“One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense” (quoted in The New York Times, February 29, 2008, p. A14).

However, the report indicates that much of the growth in incarceration is due to an increased willingness of the criminal justice system to imprison nonviolent offenders – especially drug offenders – as well as those who have committed minor or technical violations of probation or parole. States have enacted “three strikes” laws, indeterminate sentencing structures, and mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed significantly to “how big the crowd behind bars will be” (p. 7). And one important outcome of this “get-tough” approach is growing strain on states’ budgets. On average, states spend nearly 7% of their total budget on corrections. While most states still spend more on health care, education, and transportation, the percentage of state budgets going to corrections has risen in the past two decades. For instance, in 1987, for every dollar spent by the states on higher education, 32 cents was spent on corrections. In 2007, however, the states were spending 60 cents on corrections for every dollar spent on higher education (p. 32). There appears to be little recognition of the relationship between inadequate or deficient education and crime, not to mention the relationships between racism, sexism, and social class inequality and crime.

The Pew report recommends diversion programs, such as community supervision, for nonviolent offenders as well early release for nonviolent inmates. Some states that have felt the budget strain of growing incarceration rates most intensely are making changes to their sentencing and correctional policies and practices. Texas, for instance, leads the country in incarceration even though the state saw a slight drop in its prison population in 2007. That same year the Texas legislature approved expansions to drug courts and drug treatment programs to divert substance abusers from prison. It will be worth monitoring the impact of these changes to gauge who benefits from them and if they can overcome the racism, sexism and class inequality inherent in our criminal justice system.

The full report is available for download here.

The Answer You Get Depends on the Question You Ask

A few days ago, I wrote about the incident in Johannesburg, South Africa at the Free University involving a video of black students being humiliated by white students. The fallout from the video continues to roil the university and the country as a whole according to reports from South Africa. One blogger (affiliated with the BBC) writes that there is a “lot of soul searching in South Africa” right now and then poses this question:

In a country anxious to shed it’s divisive past, is this just another example that society can never really be totally rid of racism?

The responses (13 so far and the post just went up earlier today) suggest a resounding pessimism about the possibility of eliminating racism, and it’s one I’ve encountered in my classes when I teach about racism.  I can’t begin to count the number of undergraduate essays I’ve marked which begin with some variation on: “Racism has always existed.”     Uhm, no.  “That’s simply not correct,” I invariably write in the margins of such papers.   Racism as an ideology emerged at a specific historical period as a justification for the practices of global capitalism at the time known as colonialism and the slave trade (See for example, Snowden, Before Color Prejudice).    By asking the question in this way: “Can you ever rid society of racism?” you leave open the possibility that the answer is “no,” as most of those 13 people commenting suggest.    I think we can do better, frankly.   Instead, let’s ask:  “How can we dismantle racism given how persistent it seems?”    The answer you get depends on the question you ask.