In prison debate, race overshadows poverty

The way to stop filling up prisons is to end the War on Drugs, curb inequality and change our perspective on class

Published March 1, 2013 9:23PM (EST)


Racial discrimination is often used to explain the fact that 1 percent of American adults is behind bars and that we're the only Western democracy not to have abolished the death penalty. Given that America’s prisoners are disproportionately black and Hispanic, this is understandable. But what's often overlooked is class -- even though the clear majority of white, black and Hispanic prisoners stems from the underclass and working class.

Criminal justice systems are largely a reflection of economic systems. It is no coincidence that their practices are the most humane in Scandinavian countries, known for their high degree of economic solidarity. In a society marked by sharp wealth inequality, such as modern-day America, the criminal justice system can come to negate solidarity and embody the notion that those at the bottom rungs of society are little more than a nuisance. Thus, the U.S. criminal justice system emphasizes harsh retribution, disfavors rehabilitation and tends to ignore social factors behind crime, such as poverty, failing public schools or lax gun control.

America could put an end to mass incarceration by following the example of other Western democracies. Prison terms in those countries are much shorter in all types of cases, and very lengthy terms are usually reserved for the worst offenders. With regard to nonviolent offenders, these countries are also less likely to rely on incarceration as opposed to fines or probation. In addition to other reforms, America should therefore abandon peculiar and counterproductive policies like the “War on Drugs,” “three strikes laws” and harsh mandatory-minimum stays in prison.

Authorizing the recreational use of marijuana — like the Netherlands, Colorado and Washington have done — could go a long way. In 2011, over 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in America, 87 percent of whom were charged with possession only. As documented by Michelle Alexander in her book "The New Jim Crow," local police departments have received substantial federal funding to aggressively pursue minor offenders as part of the “War on Drugs.” Such incentives should be eliminated.

However, it is difficult to imagine meaningful reforms without a change of perspective. The main reason why mass incarceration exists — despite well-known solutions — is that few Americans consider it a real “problem.” Only a segment of the public is even aware that America has by far the world’s top incarceration rate. Some citizens feel concerned, but many think that draconian punishments are “just deserts,” a public safety imperative or both. Neither political party genuinely aims to tackle the issue.

Efforts to reform the system have been minimal because the premises behind harsh punishments tend to stay the same. For instance, voters recently scaled back California’s “three strikes” law. The third strike will now have to be for a “serious or violent” crime, with various exceptions. But penalties remain draconian — instead of 25-years-to-life for a third strike, nonviolent offenders will now get a sentence twice as long as normal. That is still an extremely long time, given that “normal” sentences nowadays are far lengthier than in other Western democracies and than they were in America before the rise of the “tough on crime” movement. But California’s reform is a step forward. Certain nonviolent prisoners are now in the process of being resentenced to shorter prison terms or are being released after having served extensive time.

Supporters of mass incarceration have been relatively successful at labeling advocates of reform “soft on crime.” In order to move forward, the public will have to prove more discerning and not be swayed by the politicians, judges and prosecutors who campaign for office by exploiting fear of crime. Needless to say, elected officials will also have to refrain from demagoguery and develop the will to push for what may be unpopular reforms, a change that seems implausible nowadays.

Most importantly, an end to mass incarceration is hard to foresee without a shift towards a socio-economic system rooted in greater equality and solidarity. The fact that prisoners mainly stem from the underclass and working class prevents certain Americans from identifying with them. As long as prisoners are commonly dehumanized, much of the general public and political leadership may be unwilling to accept significant criminal justice reform. While racial discrimination and other factors help explain mass incarceration, the lowly social status of poor people of all colors at a time of acute wealth inequality is a key reason why over 2.2 million human beings live behind bars in modern-day America.

By Mugambi Jouet

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Criminal Justice System Incarceration Inequality Marijuana Legalization Poverty Race War On Drugs