There is irrefutable evidence that blacks comprise a disproportionate share of the U. S. prison population. Current research indicates that minorities, particularly black and Hispanic males, face a disproportionately high risk of incarceration in the United States justice system.
We argue that this is the most serious issue facing contemporary criminal justice policymakers. This determination is made by assessing the negative impact that incarceration can have on individuals, their communities, and the integration of minorities into the nation’s larger social, economic, and political landscape.At the end of 2005, statistics show that there were 1,525,924 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons; 40 percent of those inmates were black, 35 percent were white, and 20 percent were Hispanic (Harrison & Beck 2006). Minorities, in other words, comprise about 12 percent of the U. S.
population but two-fifths of the prison population. The disparities are even more dramatic for men and particularly for men in their twenties and thirties. In 2005, 10. 7 percent of all minorities ages 25 to 29 were in prison, compared to 1 percent of white males.Although the absolute numbers are much smaller, the pattern for females is similar. The crimes that racial minorities and whites are imprisoned for also differ.
Minorities are more likely to be imprisoned for drug related offenses that whites. In 2005 forty-seven percent of minorities were imprisoned for drug offenses compared to only fourteen percent of whites (Harrison & Beck 2006). Other statistics confirm that racial minorities face a disproportionately high risk of incarceration.Blacks are incarcerated at 5. 6 times, and Hispanics 1.
times, the rate of whites (Mauer & King 2007). As all of these statistics show, minorities are substantially more likely than whites to be imprisoned in our nation’s prison systems. Even so, disparity is not necessarily parallel to discrimination. Disparity only expresses a difference in outcomes, indicating that discrimination may or may not be present. Discrimination involves a difference attributable to unequal treatment through such things as unfair policies and practices (Walker, Spohn & DeLone 2004).
We all know that incarnation is not a pleasant experience.Regardless of race or ethnicity, incarceration can be a painful and ultimately counterproductive experience. People that are imprisoned are prone to get institutionalized, also known as prisonization. Prisonization involves adopting “in greater or lesser degree the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary”(Clemmer,1958). Prisoner reactions to institutional life can include a dependence on the institutional structure, hyper vigilance, interpersonal distrust, psychological distancing, exploitive behavior, a diminished sense of self-worth, and post-traumatic stress (Haney 2001: 7-12).
Prison inmates also may be exposed to violent environments (Byrne, Hummer & Taxman2008; Johnson 2002; Sykes 1958). Those who fall victim to prison violence suffer psychologically by experiencing depression, anger, and other negative emotional states (Wooldredge 1999). One universal feature of incarcerated life is that prisoners are constantly surrounded by other criminals.This predicament makes inmates highly vulnerable to internalizing (or more deeply internalizing) pro-criminal motives, values, and techniques (Akers1997; Cullen & Gilbert 1982; Sutherland 1939). Further, incarceration causes separation from family members, friends, and other positive social supports.
This social separation may lead a prisoner to feel disconnected from the outside world. In extreme cases, suicide becomes the final solution for coping with all the trauma of imprisonment. ” (Liebling 1999) The impact of incarceration extends well beyond the prison gates.As Austin and Irwin (2001: 136) have noted, “Prisoners confront extreme difficulties in adjusting to outside life and achieving basic viability, and most of their problems stem from having been a prisoner. When inmates are released, they may be confronted with a number of mental and emotional challenges, including post-release disorientation, difficulty adjusting to change, fear of failure, anxiety, and mistrust of and withdrawal from other people (Rollo 1988). Adding on to these psychological problems, inmates usually go home broke.
(McMurray 1993; Travis, Solomon & Waul 2001) and dim employment prospects (Holzer, Raphael & Stoll 2001; Sabol & Lynch 2003).Many of the employment opportunities that do exist for convicted felons lie in unskilled jobs with low wages and abysmal-to-nonexistent benefit packages (Taxman, Young & Byrne 2002). Relationships with family, which can facilitate social readjustment (Nelson, Deess & Allen 1999; O’Brien 2001; Petersilia 2003; Richie 2001), may be strained or dissolved due to the offender’s absence (Petersilia 2003; Reentry National Media Outreach Campaign n. d. a).
If family members are not willing to take in a released prisoner, suitable housing can be quite difficult to obtain (Travis et al. 001).Finally, government assistance for housing, financial needs, and physical and mental health services is usually limited due to long waiting lists and offender-specific restrictions (Reentry National Media Outreach Campaign n. d.
b; Rubinstein & Mukamal 2002; Taxman et al. 2002; Travis et al. 2001). It is abundantly clear that prison reduces the human capital and darkens the future of those confined behind its walls (Clear & Rose 2003). Very simply, individuals are likely to leave prison in worse shape than when they entered (Foucault 1977).Consequently, and is proportional imprisonment due to discriminatory practices or policies can have grave implications for the afflicted individuals.
Incarceration generates serious problems for communities as well as individuals. The over reliance on imprisonment as the primary solution to crime during the past few decades has resulted in the removal of huge numbers of people from society. Although removing criminals from the streets in many cases is a good idea, large-scale removal of relatively low-level offenders can carry the unintended consequence of pushing struggling communities further into the depths of disrepair.This is a key point that makes racial disproportionality in incarceration the central race and justice issue facing policymakers and researchers. The problems engendered by incarceration are compounded by the fact that those who are released from prison are increasingly returning to a very small number of neighborhoods located in metropolitan areas across the country (Lynch & Sabol 2001).
In fact, in 1996, 66% of offenders released from state correctional facilities returned to a county holding the central city of a metropolitan area. Only half of all state prisoners returned to such locations in 1984.This suggests that socially disorganized areas that have been scarred by the removal of many residents are also getting them back in high volumes and in relatively short periods of time. The reason that incarceration can have a positive effect on some communities and a negative one on others is summed up quite articulately by Clear and Rose (2003: 29): .
. . removing offenders from socially disorganized areas may undermine other social control efforts there. Conversely, incarceration may reinforce social control efforts in socially organized areas.This occurs because social networks and ties, which are the foundations of local social control are already weakened in disorganized areas. Incarceration weakens them further.
The result of an overreliance on incarceration, then, is a reduction in human and social capital and an increase in social isolation. This has led to the proliferation of communities without the tools necessary for adequate informal social control. (emphasis in original) Simply put, the excessive use of incarceration has a variety of social, cultural, and economic consequences that are counterproductive to community life.One study (Clear, Rose & Ryder 2001) found that the residents of two high-incarceration neighborhoods in Tallahassee, Florida, were more focused on the negatives of incarceration than the positives. These Tallahassee citizens identified four domains in which incarceration had a negative effect on their communities.
The first domain was the stigma factor. Incarceration produces a negative stigma that undermines human and social capital, causes families to feel shame, and arouses the suspicion of neighbors when offenders return home; it also creates a negative reputation that hurts local businesses.The second domain was the financial cost of incarceration. Families are strained by the loss of the breadwinner during incarceration and by the burden of supporting ex-prisoners during post release. Due to financial troubles, these families have difficulty amassing human capital, which impairs their capacity to generate informal social control. Businesses can also suffer financially due to congregations of jobless ex-prisoners that drive away potential customers.
The third domain was identity problems.Community residents living in high-incarceration areas must struggle with the reality of residing in a disreputable location. This can lead to identity problems, especially for children, in the forms of diminished self-esteem and self-worth. In such problem areas, “There is a loss of positive role models for children and, overall, the community experiences a sense of hopelessness and apathy” (Clear, Rose & Ryder 2001: 342). Lastly there was damage to community relationships. The disruption of relationships is an inevitable outcome when a community suffers mass incarceration.
The cumulative impact of this phenomenon is a depreciation of social supports among community residents. An offender’s relationships with his/her spouse, children, and neighbors all incur strain from the effects of imprisonment. Ultimately, neighborhood networks can collapse from the return or relocation of ex-prisoners. Clear and Rose (2003) provide additional insight into these matters. They note that extreme incarceration deprives social networks of some of their assets by removing people who fill important social roles, such as the roles of father, husband, and brother.Moreover, imprisoning men often has multiple implications for families, including “ going onto welfare; moving into more cramped quarters and new school districts; family disruption, including the arrival of new male roles into the family, replacing the inmate; and reduced time for maternal parenting due to taking secondary employment” (Clear and Rose 2003: 39).
High rates of incarceration, especially in communities plagued by social isolation and deterioration, also reduce opportunities for legitimate success; this, in turn, encourages nonconformity in the forms of crime and gang membership (Cloward & Ohlin 1960; Merton 1957).High rates of incarceration in socially disorganized neighborhoods, in other words, exacerbate social problems and raise crime levels. The “get tough” policies of the war on crime and the war on drugs have hit racial/ethnic minorities and the communities in which they live the hardest. Between 1980 and 1996, the state and federal incarceration rate tripled (Blumstein & Beck 1999).
This incarceration boom was fed by tough legislation against drug offenders; from 1983 to 1993, drug offender incarceration grew by over 500 percent (Zatz 2000).Blacks and Latinos have accounted for the vast majority of the drug war prison growth. Among state and federal prison admissions between 1979 and 1992, the percentage of blacks admitted climbed from 39 to 54 percent (Tonry 1995). Looking at state imprisonment rates, Zatz (2000: 525) remarked: “ In the 5-year period from 1986 to 1991, the number of African-Americans incarcerated in State prisons for drug offenses increased by 465 percent. By 1994, African-Americans and Latinos constituted 90% of all drug offenders in State prisons.
”The continued experience of unequal punishment by aggrieved minorities—which, for blacks, is a continuation of a long struggle to achieve equality—can only have a negative impact. Any social isolation that is a byproduct of the incarceration boom is bound to reinforce existing feelings of social and political exclusion. As disproportionate incarceration continues, perceptions of exclusion and powerlessness will only intensify. The disparate incarceration of blacks can impede the full integration of blacks into American life in a number of ways.First, disproportionately imprisoning blacks—especially when it is viewed as discriminatory—can reinforce longstanding negativity toward the criminal justice system.
Public opinion polls show that blacks have much less faith in the criminal justice system than whites (see Ruddell 2004). As the justice system serves as the controlling arm of government, these unfavorable perceptions can spill over and fuel anger and resentment toward society itself. Crime can also increase, as people who believe the justice system is unfair are less likely to abide by the law (Tyler 1990).Clear and Rose (2003) highlight that one’s relationship to an incarcerated individual influences reactions to the justice system.
They write: Exposure to prison through a loved one or acquaintance . . . leads to more negative attitudes toward the justice system, because when faced with a conflict between agents of the state and close associates or family, people tend to take the side of the party with whom they are more intimate. They know that person’s history, and they can evaluate the person’s problem–even if it is a crime problem–with some sympathy.They may also tend to view the unsympathetic, bureaucratic actions of the law in negative terms.
(Clear & Rose 2003: 42) A second obstacle to the complete integration of blacks is that incarceration reduces opportunities for upward economic mobility. In American society economic success helps to define self-identify and social standing. Any social group that collectively faces economic barriers will naturally feel isolated from the mainstream. Western, Pettit, and Guetzkow (2002) point out that incarceration has aggregate-level effects on economic wellbeing in addition to individual-level impacts.
They note that a prison record reduces employment opportunities over an entire lifetime. This fact, along with blacks being incarcerated more than whites, means that the earnings gap between blacks and whites is widening. The implication here is that disproportional imprisonment has the potential to keep blacks confined to the lower class as a social group, not just as individuals. In addition, the stigma that gets attached to communities with high levels of incarceration can ripple out into the workforce. For example, employers sometimes refuse to hire blacks simply because blacks have become associated with prisons and crime.Blacks who witness such discrimination in the workforce may lose faith in the American Dream.
This could motivate many blacks to question— or entirely reject— the legitimacy of America’s promise as a land of equal opportunity and lead to a collective sense of apathy. All in all, discrimination in the incarceration of minorities clearly stands out as today’s most critical issue in the study of “ race, crime, and justice. ” Research has shown that a portion of the disparity between black and white incarceration rates can be attributed to differences in arrest rates.However, the research also indicates that a sizeable portion of this disparity could be a product of discriminatory treatment. As the criminal justice system is rooted in a philosophy of equality and justice for all, policymakers, practitioners, and academics must continue to closely monitor the potential for discrimination and vigorously search for its sources.
What is at stake are: (a) the credibility and efficiency of our justice system and (b) preventing the harmful consequences caused by discriminate incarceration on minority individuals, their communities, and social integration efforts.