We Can't Afford Not to Fix Our Justice System

It's not just fairness -- although more black men are in jail than were slaves in 1850. The cost is driving states to bankruptcy.

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Reforming the nation's criminal-justice system is one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time. One shocking fact illustrates why: More African-American men are entangled in the criminal-justice system today than were enslaved in 1850.

How did we get here? The rise in America's penchant for punishment can be traced as far back as the 1964 presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, each of whom made law and order a defining plank of his platform.

President Richard Nixon continued the trend, framing Democrats as "soft on crime" and pushing for tough law-enforcement policies in opposition to President Johnson's credo of tackling crime through a "war on poverty." "Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [Hubert] Humphrey's war on poverty," Nixon told voters.

Since then, Republicans have pushed -- and Democrats have embraced -- a so-called tough-on-crime approach to keeping us safe, one that emphasizes harsh measures after crimes have already occurred and that disproportionately punishes poor and minority communities rather than addressing the root causes of crime and preventing it in the first place.

As a result, our wrong-headed approach to justice and safety is breaking the bank of pretty much every state and breaking the spirit of communities across the country. Today the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world's population but has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. We imprison almost 1 million more people than China, at a cost to taxpayers of $68 billion in 2010.

This week the NAACP released a new report called Misplaced Priorities, demonstrating how state and federal spending decisions are creating a generation that is both undereducated and overincarcerated. Between 1987 and 2007, nationwide spending on higher education increased by a modest 21 percent. By contrast, corrections funding grew 127 percent during the same period, a rate that is more than six times as great.

Turning locally, California's prison spending has risen 25 times faster than spending on higher education over the last 30 years. The state's prison population grew 500 percent from 1982 to 2000, and California now attempts to manage nearly 170,000 people in prisons designed to hold 83,000.

In the last 20 years, the cost of operating California's corrections system skyrocketed from $2.3 billion in 1992-1993 to a projected $9.3 billion budget in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, with an additional $4 billion budgeted for prison-infrastructure expenses. Ten percent of the state's general-fund revenue now goes to the prison system.

Nowhere is the impact felt more deeply than in African-American communities, where America's epidemic of mass incarceration seemingly has removed entire generations of African-American men from their communities. Today 500,000 black fathers are currently incarcerated in America's prisons, and one out of every six African-American men has spent time in prison.

African-American girls and young women have become the fastest-growing population of incarcerated young people in the country. More than 2 million African Americans are currently either in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole.