Hardly a day passes without a major newspaper printing a news or opinion piece about incarceration in the United States. Readers are informed of large racial disparities in America’s prisons, sentencing guidelines that result in life sentences for low-level drug offenses and the debilitating consequences of solitary confinement. I am happy to see the increasing attention to these questions.
I am personally familiar with most of the questions being asked. From my very first experience to my most recent — over a period of four years — the racial disparities are the most obvious. Black men are imprisoned in numbers significantly disproportionate to their numbers in the wider population, with the majority sentenced for drug offenses. In any religious service or class I lead, blacks outnumber any other racial or ethnic group. Why? Because in the prison where I work African-Americans account for the largest percentage of inmates. This is true throughout the prison system of the United States.
Some see the racial disparities as an example of entrenched racism in the criminal justice system. A minority population is deliberately being targeted by law enforcement in ways that the white majority population would never tolerate because it has the power and influence to put it to a stop. Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, presents an articulate argument about this.
Others answer that the greater numbers of African-Americans in prison simply represent the greater levels of criminal activity in black communities. Law enforcement, therefore, acts appropriately when it allocates more of its resources to patrolling those minority communities. Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute has written extensively in defense of law enforcement targeting of high crime minority communities. She has also strongly defended New York City’s “stop and frisk” tactics that are frequently and routinely condemned on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.
According to the Congressional Research Service, about 35 percent of inmates entering federal prison in 2010 were convicted of a drug offense. This is down from a high of almost 45 percent in 2002. The largest increase in the federal prison population is the result of the increasing number of convictions for immigration violations. In 2010 over 30% of inmates entering federal prison did so as a result of an immigration violation. Federal incarcerations due to violent or property crimes have decreased in the past ten years. Imprisonment for weapons violations has risen from five percent to around 12 percent in the past ten years.
These statistics show up in press reports, especially the statistics of incarceration for drug offenses. They are often linked to the question of race. More blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses than for any other illegal activity.
In addition to many black prisoners, in my work I encounter no small number of white and Hispanic inmates who are serving sentences for drug offenses. Some of the sentences are for more than ten years; some even for decades and a few even for life. Only a small percentage of federal inmates (less than 5 percent) are sentenced for a term of 20 years to life, according to the Congressional Research Service. I am not sure what percentage of inmates with whom I work who are in that category were sentenced to so many years for drug trafficking, but the number seems fairly large. And it cuts across the racial spectrum.
A growing number, within the criminal justice system as well as outside it, are raising questions about the sentencing guidelines that have put so many men (and some women) behind bars for the rest of their lives for relatively low-level drug offenses. Among them are judges who regret that they have so little discretion in sentencing low-level offenders to draconian sentences. The most frequently voiced condemnation of the criminal justice system I hear among the inmates with whom I work relates to sentencing. Most will admit that they were engaged in illegal drug activity. They ask why they should have to pay for until they are carried out of prison in a body bag.
I see an uptick in the number of news stories and opinion pieces about prisons and incarceration in the papers I read. One expects liberals to write about such things, but I have seen several pieces by conservatives as well. From my perspective as one who works in a prison, this is good. All systems should be routinely questioned and be asked to justify why they exist and why they do what they do in the way they do it. Uncomfortable as this can be, and as uncomfortable as it makes some people feel, better justice will most likely come of it.