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Do we have the slightest notion how deeply divided this country remains regarding race and, of course, class?

One wonders, when it costs so much to be racist and divisive and mean.

Do we at all understand what the criminal justice system has done to accommodate the bias, to feed the troll of the supremacy whites feel toward people of color – especially Blacks, Latinos and American Indians?

One wonders, when we watch those charged with serving and protecting all of us, the police in fact zero in on people of color for ticketing and arrests (think racial profiling, and “driving while Black” and the hundreds of captured Rodney King-style videos and documented stories of police abuses dating to the pre-Civil War days up to the present day), and those responsible for charging and prosecuting crime disproportionately seek greater punishment and fewer plea bargains for Black men, and judges responsible for the fair dispensation of punishment, send more men and women of color to prison than many whites who have committed similar crimes.

In this light, why would anyone wonder why so many young men of color, many without hope and the stability complete families and jobs and an equal education system should not eventually see how incarceration might well become a rite of passage, something to boast about, as so many do, and thus so willing to serve time when they belong in school or a job or certainly at home.

Then, when these inmates (mostly men) are finally freed, they’re stymied by stigma and a felony record from renting an apartment or home, from working a decent job that would keep them from returning.

Why would we question why they eventually go back in? Probably for a drug violation like the huge percentage of their brothers and sisters, usually using, and re-addicted.

As Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, and the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness writes:

“Convictions for non-violent crimes and relatively minor drug offenses — mostly possession, not sale — have accounted for the bulk of the increase in the prison population since the mid-1980s.

African-Americans are far more likely to get prison sentences for drug offenses than white offenders, even though studies have consistently shown that they are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.”

Let us hasten to add here that laws were clearly written to inordinately penalize Blacks for their likely use of crack cocaine while penalties for the powdered version of cocaine more often favored by whites were one-tenth of those for crack in the certain knowledge that there is no discernible difference between the forms and that Blacks engaged in more crack use.

Those disparities are but one of many in the criminal justice system.

Since 1980, this nation’s total state and federal prison population has risen from roughly a half-million prisoners to well over 2.3 million as of 2008. That is 1 of every 100 Americans now behind bars, more than any other first-tier country. By age 23, aboutone third of young people will have been arrested for a crime greater than a traffic violation.

At least 40 percent of these inmates were black, 35 percent were white, and 20 percent were Hispanic (Harrison & Beck 2006). Sixty percent are Black or Latino. Blacks, in other words, comprise about 12 percent of the U.S. population buttwo-fifths of the prison population.

The disparities are even more dramatic for males, and particularly for males in their twenties and thirties. In 2005, 8.1 percent of all black males age 25 to 29 were in prisoncompared to 2.6 percent of Hispanic males and 1.1 percent of white males. Although the absolute numbers are much smaller, the pattern for females is similar. (emphasis mine)*

Moreover, while in prison, inmates are expected to work for all but slave wages for corporations that contract with the prison system to manufacture various goods, among them furniture. This is another program entirely.

The numbers are there for all to see and it’s a shameful commentary on everything we’ve ever claimed to hold dear about our country’s stated commitment to both the common welfare and equality and justice under the law.

Hell, even Newt Gingrich and other conservatives are now decrying the rate of imprisonment and they, of course, see this as both a blot on the nation’s so-called commitment to a stable society, but also, of course, the inordinate costs that have grown out of a long-developed era of Republican “tough on crime” initiatives at the state and federal level. Their recommendations for change mirror those of progressive liberals.

Minnesota is no exception to this system, although some advancements have been made, thanks to the Second Chance Coalition, like removing check-offs from employment applications that force job seekers to admit that they’ve been convicted of a felony. This is often the insuperable barrier to that job.

TTT’s ANDY DRISCOLL and MICHELLE ALIMORADI talk with one-time law enforcement, incarceration and post-incarceration advocates and a psychologist about their take on these horrendous conditions, the toll they’re taking not just on the young men and the Black and other communities of color, but on society as a whole, and what we can possibly do about these disparities that often reflect the culture itself.


Brett E. Garland, Cassia Spohn, and Eric J. Wodahl: “Racial Disproportionality in the American Prison Population: Using the Blumstein Method to Address the Critical Race and Justice Issue of the 21st Century”, (Justice Policy Journal, Volume 5 – No. 2 – Fall 2008)