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.
Our criminal-justice system today undoubtedly functions much like a racial caste system, as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, so aptly points out. Being labeled a felon effectively strips away crucial rights from an individual, locking him or her into second-class status indefinitely, unable to vote, secure a good job or find safe and affordable housing.
The current system provides for little or no reintegration; it functions as a revolving door, through which those who have served time in jail or prison all too often quickly find themselves back in, unable to overcome the many obstacles they face when attempting to re-enter their communities.
It is time to recognize that our scorched-earth approach to public safety has sent us down the wrong path. We need to be smart about our policies and resources while keeping our communities safe. Here are three steps we recommend to ensure that public safety is a true civil and human right for all of us:
Build Broad-Based Coalitions
It is no longer enough for criminal-justice reform to be an issue of concern only to criminal-justice reformists. We need to bring to the table business leaders and advocates for civil rights, education equality, women's rights and families. We also need to work with people we have traditionally considered to be unlikely allies in this fight, such as law enforcement and business.
More and more, leaders in law enforcement are calling for new ways to keep our communities safe, and California's new attorney general, Kamala Harris, is among those leading the charge. We also need more grant makers to recognize the connection between criminal justice and other social problems they are aiming to alleviate, and invest resources for maximum impact.
Eliminate Barriers to Employment
There is perhaps no more effective tool for successful re-entry into society than employment. Formerly incarcerated people who are able to secure employment are one-third less likely than their counterparts to end up back in prison or jail. That is why both the NAACP and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area have launched new initiatives to meet this challenge.
In California, the NAACP worked to secure an administrative order from the governor's office that removes questions about criminal history from employment applications for most state jobs. The Lawyers' Committee has launched a new clinic to connect formerly incarcerated individuals with pro bono attorneys from top law firms to address legal barriers to re-entry and employment. We all win when we ensure that those who have paid their debt to society can have the tools they need to turn their lives around.
In 2010 the NAACP commissioned new rolling advertisements in various California cities to draw attention to the disturbing trend of spending more on jails than on higher education. Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged this when he aptly noted, "Spending 45 percent more on prisons than on universities is no way to proceed into the future … What does it say about any state that [it] focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?"
As states across the country continue to struggle with budget crises, we need to collectively call for shifting our funding priorities from incarceration toward programs and initiatives that will revitalize our communities.
It is our belief that criminal-justice reform is one of the leading issues in the fight to ensure equal opportunity for communities in need. We cannot afford to wait another generation to turn around decades of failed policies that have caused our nation to hemorrhage money and human potential. The exigency for policies that are smart on crime — not just "tough on crime" — is now. It is the only way we can achieve something we all want: safe and healthy communities.
The NAACP has released a report titled Misplaced Priorities that details the challenges faced by the states because of spending on incarceration over education. You can get a full copy of the report here.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP. Lateefah Simon is executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.