The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Budgets Reveal our Priorities

Last summer my class at the University of Nevada, Reno for my Masters in Public Administration was public budgeting. What we discussed in that class was the fact that budgeting in the political process is always political, and never based on completely rational principles. We can do our best to include data and think objectively, but a the end of the day we must make political decisions and judgement calls when we decide where we will allocate funding. How we make those decisions and where we choose to spend money reveal our priorities. This is particularly helpful to understand when we look at our nation’s problem with mass incarceration. A lot of people understand that there are problems with the number of people we arrest and that we underfund a lot of social services, but I don’t think people fully recognize the costs of mass incarceration in purely financial costs, and how those costs relate to other programs or areas where the government could spend money.

Michelle Alexander provides examples of the budget being used to arrest black people in her book The New Jim Crow. Rather than using money for services and programs upstream, before we ever arrest an individual, our resources over the years have shifted toward our police and prisons, making it easier to arrest people and providing funding to keep people incarcerated. Alexander writes, “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)”. She continues by quoting Loic Wacquant, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

What the funding of public housing and prisons in the United States during the 1990s shows us is where our priorities lied regarding race, incarceration, and public housing. Alexander throughout the book demonstrates how a lack of affordable housing can lead to crime, particularly low level drug dealing charges. By taking away funding for public housing we set up a situation where poor people can barely afford a place to live and turn to illegal forms of earning money. Down stream this leads to more arrests and greater prison costs. Getting ahead of the drug dealing and arrest cycle in some cases is as simple as providing better housing (or any form of housing at all) so that an individual can work a basic job and afford housing.

Ultimately, our nation’s priority has been to punish those who we decide are bad apples rather than help those individuals create a situation where they don’t have to resort to illegal activity in the first place. We have conveniently told ourselves that success, failure, crime, and opportunities are the results of individual actions. The role of the collective and the importance of our position within society are downplayed when we look at success versus criminality, and as a result, we seek punishment for those who mess up and find it unacceptable to help those who are poor, struggling to avoid drug use, have slight mental health issues, and those who lack the education, skills, and abilities to become more successful in the low level jobs that we undervalue. If our priorities were truly aligned around helping people get a step ahead, or if our priorities were on creating a society where one could pull themselves up by their boot straps, our priorities would be reflected in a budget that did not decimate social services and public housing for those who needed some form of stability to help them get on the right path. Our nation has decided that directing ever greater funding toward police, prisons, and incarceration is a better use of our money as opposed to establishing a budget to fund upstream interventions to prevent crime and help build stability in people’s lives.