Prison Reform, a Step Toward Racial Equality and Respect

Last month, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison as he begins pushing congress to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.

Obama is urging meaningful sentencing reform, steps to reduce repeat offenders, and reform for the juvenile justice system to improve public safety, reduce runaway incarceration costs and make the criminal justice system fairer – and for good reason. The U.S. criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.

To start, the system is riddled with racial bias and inequity. In 2011, the New York City Police Department made more stops of young black men than there are young black men in the city. Nearly one in three black men are imprisoned in their lifetime, while only one in 17 white men are imprisoned. When sentenced, black men are sent to prison for periods that are up to about 20 percent longer than white male defendants with similar crimes.

Sixty percent of incarcerated persons are black or Hispanic, even though they compromise only 28.6 percent of the population combined. While African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 40 percent of prisoners are black. According to Politifact, an organization that investigates and evaluates public political statements, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid – a reality that should quickly put the issue into perspective.

In addition, over the last four decades, the number of incarcerated persons increased 500 percent, and now includes about 2.2 million adults in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons. The number of women in prison increased 832 percent between 1997 and 2007 while the male population grew by 416 percent during the same 30-year period. Black women are more than six times as likely as white women to be incarcerated during their lifetimes.

Despite crime rates steadily declining during the last 25 years, incarceration rates have risen steeply. While increasing police force sizes can be an effective crime reduction strategy, studies suggest long prison sentences have little effect on crime rates. What this tells us? The resources spent confining people to boxes, for years and years, proliferates a system not even proven to work.

Policy decisions such as mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeated offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity, have also added to the explosion of state and federal prison populations. While the portion of persons in state prisons convicted of violent crimes makes up more than half that population, at the federal level violent crime accounts for only 7 percent of the federal prison population. More than 1/3 of the federal prison population is black, and more than 1/3 is Hispanic, yet those figures pale in comparison to the demographics of state prisons, where there are more than 5.5 times as many black inmates as there are white inmates.

Further, state spending on correction has outpaced spending on most other government functions, and in most states it is the third largest expenditure category behind education and healthcare.

At these costs, we might expect prisoners’ most basic economic rights to be respected. But that’s not what we find. Nearly half of the U.S. prison population works, but “the median wage [earned by inmates] in state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents respectively.” Because incarcerated persons do not qualify as “employees” under the law, they do not have labor rights.

Many see this as an extension of 19th century slavery due to its historical legacy. The comparison is not far from the truth. In three states – Texas, Georgia and Arkansas – inmates work for free.

So where does this put us and what should reform look like?

In light of these numbers we must not only recognize the inadequate state of our criminal justice system, but also demand a response to change it.

Meaningful reform must:

  1. Target racial bias by fighting institutional and structural inequities
  2. Reduce prison populations in a responsible manner (for example through rehabilitation and reintegration of incarcerated persons)
  3. Provide measures to enforce inmates’ human rights.

Likewise, the president and congress should urge states to follow suit.