By Sherwood Ross
Allowing prosecutors to jam our prisons with five times the number of inmates as 1970, largely with young brown and black males, is the signature of America’s new, slick racism. It isn’t Jim Crow. It’s James Crow.
Succeeding beyond the wildest dreams of the Ku Klux Klan, James Crow makes minority youth suffer the blistering hell of a medieval prison system as never before, leaving behind them mean streets of families with broken homes and hearts. Prosecutors, of course, will deny they are racist but the end result of their work is the same.
“Three actors determine daily incarceration rates” (in our prisons), The Nation magazine reports in its Oct. 13 issue, “the police, prosecutors, and judges.” Zero-tolerance policing and the “War on Drugs” have blasted low-level arrests into orbit, “especially among minorities,” allege the magazine’s co-authors.
Behind our current, unprecedented explosion in incarcerations, Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert report, in part, is the fact that black people are 3.73 times more likely (ACLU figures) to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though they are equally liable to use it.
What’s more, state legislatures have butted into the territory of the courts, forcing judges to impose minimum mandatory sentences whether they are justified or not. And so-called truth-in-sentencing laws typically limit or abolish parole, resulting in lengthier terms.
Those same white-dominated legislatures and overwhelmingly white prosecutors are behind the soaring marijuana arrests that make it easier to stiffen the terms (like California’s three strikes law) of any later, actual crime.
Under the War on Drugs, “aggressive policing drove up the percentage of those in state prisons for drug offenses from 6.4 percent in 1980 to 22 percent in 1990,” the authors write.
Prosecutors, (particularly those out to make a name for themselves in politics,) are “requesting long prison sentences, far in excess of any conceivable notion of justice,” co-authors Konczal and Covert write.
The “War on Drugs” and zero-tolerance policing cause low-level arrests to skyrocket, “especially among minorities,” they add. Thus, America leads the world today with 2.3 million souls behind bars. Yet its leaders bray about America as a world leader.
Yet another reason for the climbing prison population has been the explosion of private prisons. Since the 1980s Reagan era shift to privatization, more than 150 private facilities—detention centers, jails, and prisons—-with a capacity of about 120,000 have been opened, and 7% of all U.S. adult inmates have been dumped in them. Since their operators get paid on a per capita basis, there is a built-in financial incentive to keep prisoners behind bars longer.
“Abuse of prisoners, escapes, prison violence including prisoner-on-prisoner, prisoner-on-guard and vice versa, restricted and malfeasant health care, providing rotten food, and other prison management problems are characteristic of the private prison industry,” writes sociologist Margaret Rosenthal in “The Long Term View,” a journal published by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. Rosenthal is Professor Emerita, School of Social Work, Salem State College, Mass. (Disclosure: Sherwood Ross was editor for that issue.)
A few suggestion: (1) Close down all private prisons. (2) Set prisoners free doing time for victimless crimes such as marijuana possession and decriminalize marijuana. (3) Transfer all the mentally ill from prisons to treatment hospitals where they belong. (4) repeal laws restricting the rights of judges to sentence. (5) Educate all police officers in “human relations.” (6) Urge the private sector to locate new plants and supermarkets in ghetto areas to provide training and jobs for minorities, particularly minority youth.
Tom Paine once wrote not to boast of your country until you can say the streets are free of beggars and the jails are free of prisoners. The exact quote follows: “When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, then may that country boast its Constitution and its Government”
None of these utopian conditions describe today’s America. In fact, just the opposite is true. USA has 700 prisoners behind bars per 100,000 population, compared, say, to Sweden’s 60—making USA No. 1 in the number of human beings behind bars. And James Crow sits on the same branch once occupied by Jim. # (Sherwood Ross, formerly a wire service correspondent and civil rights activist, now operates a public relations firm for good causes. Payment at prevailing rates for this article appreciated. Reach Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org).