“Some so-called criminals – and I use this word because it’s handy, it means nothing to me — I speak of the criminals who get caught as distinguished from the criminals who catch them–some of these so-called criminals are in jail for their first offenses, but nine-tenths of you are in jail because you did not have a good lawyer and, of course, you did not have a good lawyer because you did not have enough money to pay a good lawyer. There is no very great danger of a rich man going to jail.” — Clarence S. Darrow, Speech to inmates at Cook County Jail, 1902
What if one out of every ten adult white males from your community was either in jail or prison, what impact would that have on the community? According to the Sentencing Project “more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities due to the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs” which has almost exclusively been waged in America’s poorer areas i.e. communities of color (sentencingproject.org).”
According to Adam Liptak columnist for the New York Times, “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. “China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison (Liptak, 2008).”
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker Magazine puts it this way, “More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height (Gopnik, 2012).”
If as the Sentencing Project points out, “The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails… a 500% increase over the past thirty years” and “More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. (Thus “for black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day)” as well as the fact that… “These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs” in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color” (sentencingproject.org)… the impact on these communities has to be disastrous.
An individual’s well-being is tied to a society’s social-structure which in turn defines a person’s access to its social as well as cultural capital. The extent and availability of these elements (i.e. social and cultural capital) are principally tied to the communities’ people live in. Nearly all the data show that persons who come from wealthy functional communities have a higher likelihood of success and well-being than those from poorer dysfunctional communities. However whether or not a community is functional or dysfunctional largely depends on the kinds and qualities of the families living there specifically are they stable or unstable, do they mainly consist of single or two parent homes, are the parents employed, are they high or low-income earners, are they educated, do they have legacy and the like. The fact that minorities represent over two thirds of those currently in prison has and is having direct effect on the communities where they once lived if for no other reason than it escalates the numbers of single parent homes.
Arguments and justifications rationalizing current policies and enforcement strategies seemingly miss the obvious point namely, it is the effects of these policies and enforcement strategies themselves that are largely to blame for creating and perpetuating the very conditions they are purportedly designed to combat.
It is little wonder to most of us that children coming from wealthier communities and stable homes tend to do well and be law-abiding. So why on the other hand is there such confusion, finger-pointing, and disdain in regards to the outcomes of children from poorer dysfunctional families and communities, doesn’t it only makes sense that when their families are ruined and their communities are left to decay from the inside out that these children will not do as well, and not be as law-abiding. And are they really to blame for a social structure they didn’t create and from which they have no escape.
Is punishment for what are essentially “victimless” crimes so vital to the “war on drugs” and its proponents’ that it’s worth the price of millions of shattered homes and tens of millions of destroyed lives? How many more should we be obliged to sacrifice in the name of deterrence with its false economy, mendacious procedures, and seemingly endless capacity for vindictiveness before someone realizes it’s only making matters worse not better?
The question comes down to this, is it better to be self-righteous, or is it better to simply be right? And knowing this how can we then continue to set and follow such ill-advised policies and implement such self-contradictory strategies? If we want to lower crime perhaps we should do things that we know will actually work rather than continuing in King Pyrrhus’ footsteps. Or vis-à-vis our “war on drugs” the more victorious we are… the more likely it is that our victories will undo us.
Interestingly one of the central features of a dysfunctional family is a tendency to blame the victim for the situation, disorder, or result(s). Seemingly resembling the current situation where those with little choice over their surroundings or futures are held to account by those who essentially have put and keep them there.
Retrieved from http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=107
Liptak, A. (2008, April 23). U.s. prison population dwarfs that of other nations. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all
The caging of america. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/bios/adam_gopnik/search?contributorName=adam gopnik
- Why Do “Reformers'” Ignore Mass Incarceration? (dianeravitch.net)
- Adam Gopnik On How We Eat (yankeeinnashville.wordpress.com)