Mass Black Incarceration
Four out of five prisoners would have to be released to reduce U.S. incarceration to 1972 levels
A new report shows that New Jersey has the nation’s highest racial disparity in incarceration rates, with Blacks in the state 12 times more likely to go to prison than whites. The report is titled, “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” compiled by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based prison reform group. Right behind New Jersey in racially disparate imprisonment are Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont—all states with relatively small Black populations, but where African Americans are ten-times as likely to be incarcerated than whites. Mass Black incarceration knows no bounds in the United States of America, the world champion of incarceration, with 2.3 million men and women behind bars.
Some states are worse than others, but all of them are much worse for Black people than for whites. Blacks don’t make up a majority of any state in the country, but they are the majority of the prison population in 12 states: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
In terms of the proportion of the Black male population that is incarcerated at any given time, the prize goes to Oklahoma, where one out of every 15 Black men, age 18 or older, is currently living behind bars. In 11 other states, one out of every 20 Black males has been snatched from his community.
New Jersey stands out for high rates of racial disparity in incarceration and for having a Black majority in the prison system, but in recent years it’s one of three states that have substantially reduced their prison populations. New York and California have also scaled down their gulags. According to The Sentencing Project, the key to shrinking the prison population lies in the intake valves of a criminal justice system that arrests far too many people, especially Black people, and then locks them up for way too long. Project executive director Marc Mauer told Black Agenda Report that President Obama and his successors should consider clemency for whole categories of prisoners, similar to President Gerald Ford’s amnesty for draft resisters back in 1974. But, don’t expect any late term prisoner release surprises from Barack Obama, who went to court to keep about 5,000 federal crack cocaine prisoners behind bars, even after the racist legislation under which they were convicted was repealed and replaced.
Without fundamental changes at every stage of the criminal justice process, Black Americans will continue to make up something approaching one out of every eight prison inmates in the world. Indeed, accounting for growth in U.S. population, by my calculations the nation’s jailers and prison wardens would have to set four out of every five of their prisoners free just to get incarceration rates down to the levels of 1972, when the effects of the national mass Black incarceration regime were just starting to be felt. Of the 2.3 million current prison inmates, fully 80 percent, totaling 1,850,000 men and women would have to be let go—and even then, the United States would still be a high incarceration nation. 1972 was one year after the Attica Rebellion—not a great time for Black people in the criminal justice system. If only we had known that, 44 years later, things would be far, far worse.
—Black Agenda Report, June 16, 2016