What Rodney King's Woes Say About Us
His troubles are emblematic of a broken criminal-justice system.
Earlier in his life, King had pleaded no contest to battery against his wife and, later, to robbery. King said that he led police on a high-speed chase the night of the beating because "I was scared of going back to prison and I just kind of thought the problem would just go away."
In 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.26 million adults were incarcerated (pdf). The U.S. incarceration rate as a percentage of the population is the highest in the world by far, followed by Russia -- hardly a badge of honor for the world's superpower. Just as relevant, an earlier study by the BJS found that more than half of all prison and jail inmates in 2005 had a mental-health problem. Many were homeless, and a majority with or without a mental-health problem had a substance-abuse problem.
America's overincarceration is a public health problem as well as a human rights problem. It is also a fiscal problem. In a nation where we constantly cry that government is fiscally overextended, a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (pdf) illustrates how much overincarceration is literally costing it. As the authors put it: "A reduction rate by one-half in the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate as we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards)." That money could be put into drug treatment, job creation and education.
So when we remember Rodney King, I hope we don't just remember a black body beaten by batons or a trial gone bad or a city on the brink. I hope we don't just remember sad footage of him from a reality show, or the fact that he died before his 50th birthday in a backyard pool.
I do hope that we remember how many women and men are living lives like King's, and then I hope that we as a society take action to ensure that we treat the human potential of vulnerable Americans with respect, spending some of the money we now use on warehousing them to treat and rehabilitate them.
Farai Chideya is an award-winning author and journalist and a spring 2012 fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. Follow her on Twitter.