by Kevin Bliss
Michigan Institute of Technology (MIT) Department of Economics professor Peter Temin released a report last April titled “Mass Incarceration Retards Racial Integration.” He says that it was systemic racial prejudice which initiated the move toward mass incarceration and now it was that same intense level of incarceration which was preventing true integration in this nation. His paper discusses the history and theory behind the development of mass incarceration and gives a few recommendations to alleviate the systemic racism that rises from it.
Temin says mass incarceration had its roots in President Nixon’s War on Drugs of 1971. From there, the United States expanded its prison systems until they had the highest percentage of incarcerated people than any other industrial nation. Of those in prison, 40% are Black although they only account for 13% of the nation’s population. Statistics show that one out of every three Black males in America will go to prison. And still prison populations continue to grow. Cambridge MIT professor Glenn Loury said, “Imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment.”
As with most academic analysis this one fails to note the gender bias that makes the disparities even starker. Black men only make up around 6% of the US population and the prison population is around 95% male.
Temin uses an economic model to show that mass incarceration is a function of government policy in response to crime. The report states that the old Jim Crow laws (abolished due to their inherent racism) were replaced by new laws aimed at the young, poor, and predominately minority races. Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman confirmed Nixon’s intent to incarcerate all of Black America. “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is the Blacks,” he says. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate Black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true. Says Africa is hopeless. The worst is Liberia, which we built.”
The report states that the crack epidemic of the 1980s further intensified the gap between white and Black America in criminal sentencing. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 made possession of five grams of crack cocaine punishable by a minimum sentence of five years. Crack cocaine was found and favored mostly in Black neighborhoods, according to the report. Yet, powder cocaine, a drug favored by whites, required 500 grams to trigger the mandatory five-year sentence. This was a disparity of 100:1.
With around 3,000 defendants a year being sentenced under these federal crack laws, and a national prison population of some 2 million people, the impact of these laws seems to be overstated. Not analyzed are prosecution practices that likely lead to white defendants not being charged in federal court to face these harsh mandatory minimums. Or, like Hunter Biden, America’s most famous white crack addict, never being charged with a crime at all despite well documented criminal drug abuse.
Temin states that the inherent prejudice in the criminal justice system disrupts families, social networks and other forms of support. It hinders education and removes resources from the economy. The report suggests in order to overcome these obstacles, the nation must to become more integrated.
The report states that there are several options to creating a more integrated society. It says the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was a major move toward eliminating mass incarceration in America even though it only affected a few thousand of the two million prisoners locked up at the time. But, no sentencing reforms of that quality, minimal as it was, have followed. It recommends removing incentives for prosecutors to plead out cases would help reduce prison populations. Lastly, it states that quality education and compassionate teachers with appropriate compensation are most important to initiating change. Redirecting funds from prisons to schools is needed to ensure the end of mass incarceration and its systemic racism. It fails to note that the biggest and best prison diversion program in America, regardless of race, is wealth.
The study seems to ignore the impact of mass incarceration on states with largely white populations which also experienced a massive explosion in their prison population over the same time period. States like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine The fact that largely white populated states with no significant Black populations also grew their prison populations by several fold would indicate that perhaps something other than racism might be at work.
Moreover, it ignores the fact that America’s prison and jail population is overwhelmingly poor, regardless of race. No one claims wealthy racial minorities are being herded into prison in significant numbers. Alas, class-based analysis of the criminal justice system largely ended in American academia in the 1970s.
Source: Institute for New Economic Thinking, Working Papers, “Mass Incarceration Retards Racial Integration”
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