The report says 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008. Locking people up comes with a cost. The 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison cost was six times greater than for higher education spending.
No one should be shocked that the incarceration numbers are worse for people of color. While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine. One in every 355 white women aged 35 to 39 is behind bars, compared with nine of every 100 black women in that same age group.
What is causing this rapid increase? Is this what Bill Clinton had in mind when he pressed the “three-strikes” law that resulted in longer prison stays? With all the talk about getting tough on crime, have we become so consumed with getting the bad guys off the streets that we have created a monster that is controlling us more than we are managing its actions?
It would be easy to blame all of this on something in the air that is making criminals out of Americans. How else can we explain having more people in prison than China, despite their massive population? Sure, go ahead and say it’s the fault of Hip-Hop culture, violence in the media and the evil usage of the N-word. What is it that is driving our nation to violence?
I’m one that believes every reaction is instigated by an action. Otherwise, we’d have to conclude there is something floating in American water that is contaminating the souls of those in the good ole USA. I refuse to accept that the culture of America preconditions people to embrace the life of crime. I reject the notion that we, by virtue of influences within popular culture, have promoted the hard life as a legitimate expression of life in America.
No, it’s not the water, and it’s not our evil music and other cultural variants that have caused this crisis. Rather, it is a series of public policy decisions that have advanced a greater divide between those with the resources and those without. The life of crime, for many, has become more than a chose they make. Sadly, due to the impact of public policy decisions, too many of those behind bars are there because, in their mind, they had no other option.
Many of my readers are prepared to throw stones at me after that line of reasoning. If you don’t believe me, talk to a person weeks after being released from prison. Talk to them about the challenges they face after being released. That felon label sticks with them. America, when it comes to those who have been behind bars, isn’t a forgiving nation. This is especially true when drugs are involved.
A close friend of mine has a son who was released from prison last week. After six long years of serving time for selling drugs, he is back in the real world hoping to pull his life together. Before going to prison, he completed two years of college. Academics were never a problem. Like many who end up in prison, he now has to contend with the variety of assumptions made about those who have served time.
It doesn’t help that he is a black man. He has gone on interviews over the past week. He has a list of certifications to prove his worth: heating and air conditioning and electrician. He has not wasted time while in prison. He wants to go back to college to complete that degree. In the meantime, he just wants a job. Any job to help begin his new life after serving time.
He has the support of a loving family. His mother and sister are in his corner. His brother is there to help keep him on the straight and narrow. Grandmother provides her witty wisdom. This is not a story of a bad dude from an out of control family. Rather, this is a good man who made a mistake, wishes he could change it all and prove his worth to those he has let down.
The excitement he feels is fragile. When on interviews he has noticed a few things. People aren’t concerned when he tells the truth about his criminal record. They’ll say, “You served time? No problem. That is until he says it was drug related. Then they deflate the part of him that has prayed for this day to come. He fights back the rage related to watching those who did worse crimes find work because drugs are not on their rap sheet. The double standard caused by those polices we create make it hard for those who get out to stay out.
How many of those locked up have been there before? Why are they back again? Could it be because we are more enamored with keeping them away from us than we are in helping them, the best we can, to stay out of trouble?
Something is wrong with America. It’s not the water and it’s not because we are preconditioned to be criminals. Our policies are harming the progress of far too many. Each of us can help. This is the first step. Anyone have a job for a young man who is trying to do the right thing? If so, call me at (919) 321-1379. If you know someone else looking for work, call me.
The Rev-elution is committed to making a difference. It takes each of us working together. Hollla at your boy!