Why Young African-American Men Fill US Jails

Study reveals that 1 of every 3 young black males is now under the supervision of the criminal-justice system

While most blacks cheered and most whites were stunned by the O.J. Simpson verdictreport focusing on young black men and the American justice system is cause for alarm for both races.

Released today, the report concludes that 1 in 3 young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is now under the supervision of the criminal-justice system, either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

On any given day, the findings say, an estimated 827,440 young men, or 32.2 percent of all blacks, are in trouble with the law.

The report was produced by The Sentencing Project, a Washington organization that studies criminal-justice issues and sentencing reform. The study entitled ''Young Black Americans and the criminal-Justice System: Five Years Later'' follows a widely discussed 1990 Sentencing Project report stating that 1 in 4 young blacks was then under criminal-justice system supervision.

Both studies used data from US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

''The Sentencing Project is an advocacy group,'' says Jeff Roth, a spokesman for the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., ''but reliable and fair in its analysis.''

The new report charges that US drug policies, not just increases in crime, have been the critical factor in the dramatic increase in minority incarceration. And more broadly, just as the O.J. Simpson trial revealed, the report states that racism plays a part in the dynamics that send record numbers of blacks into the criminal-justice system.

While blacks are estimated to be 13 percent of all monthly drug users, according to the report, they represent 55 percent of drug convictions, and 74 percent of drug-related prison sentences.

As all drug arrests have gone up since the 1980s, minority arrests amount to 39 percent of all arrests between 1980 and 1993. This is so disproportionate to all arrests, the report says, that arrest practices and mandatory sentencing for possession of small amounts of drugs need questioning.

''We now have a whole generation experiencing astronomical rates of contact with the criminal-justice system,'' says Marc Mauer, the co-author of the new report, and assistant director of The Sentencing Project.

''If these numbers were for young white men,'' Mr. Mauer says, ''the nation would declare a national emergency.'' Almost 7 percent of young whites, or 1,069,076, are in the criminal-justice system.

The growth of the criminal-justice system in the past 20 years has paralleled the growing social and economic problems in the inner cities, the report states.

As manufacturing has declined in cities and been replaced by low-wage service industries, poverty has risen among many black families, along with violence and crime among youth. The result is described as a black ''underclass'' concentrated in the inner cities, and subject to closer police scrutiny.

Racism's role

While racism is hard to pin down as a factor in convictions of young blacks, the Sentencing Project concurs with other findings that, ''blacks are arrested and confined in numbers grossly out of line with their use or sale of drugs.'' Law enforcement practices, the report says, often prove to be tougher on minorities.

Other studies charge that blacks simply commit more crimes that lead to imprisonment. For many youths, jobs with good wages are hard to find in the inner cities. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the annual earnings for black male high school dropouts in their 20s fell by 50 percent from 1973 to 1989.

A 1990 RAND Research report found that among a group of young black men in Washington with low-paying jobs, about two-thirds were employed at the time of their arrests for drug distribution. For them drug dealing was more than ''moonlighting;'' drugs provided some with median earnings of $2000 a month in sales.

Equally disturbing is the Sentencing Report's finding that the number of young African-American women under criminal-justice supervision rose 78 percent between 1989 and 1994.

''This is tied in very much with dependency and prostitution,'' Mr. Mauer says. ''The men ... get them hooked on drugs or prostitution because the women perceive that they do not have other options. Generally the women probably have fewer marketable skills than men do in the communities, and so they get caught up in this very difficult cycle.''

Nationwide the number of black women in state prisons for drug offenses jumped from 664 in 1986 to 6,193 in 1991. Black women from distressed communities, the report says, are now more likely than men to use drugs, and to use more serious drugs more frequently. And women are more likely to be under the influence of drugs when they are arrested.

Lost 'social capital'

Overall, what is being lost beneath this welter of grim statistics is what the Committee for Economic Development (CED) calls the loss of vital ''social capital,'' the disappearance of trust, caring, and hope among young people and their families in inner city communities.

''All our Fortune 500 business leaders in CED have stated before that the policy of just taking people away and locking them up means you are probably going to increase recidivism, and do nothing to reduce the pre-conditions that led to their involvement,'' says Marc Bendick, Jr., of Bendick and Egan in Washington, D.C., and author of a CED report on rebuilding inner cities. ''We are saying these people are a loss of social capital to their communities.''

To gain back this social capital and stop the flow of young black men and women into crime, the Sentencing Project recommends that national policies shift to backing more prevention and treatment, and reducing the emphasis on law enforcement. This includes more treatment inside the criminal-justice system too.

Repeat offenders

Nate Nonoy, a spokesman for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, disagrees with such a proposal. ''These people are by and large repeat offenders,'' he says, ''and on the whole not able to respond to treatment. Incarceration and building more prisons are the answers.''

But a California state study concluded that every dollar spent on treatment resulted in $7 in savings on reduced crime and health care costs. And a 1994 RAND Research Review report found that treatment is ''seven times more cost-effective in reducing cocaine consumption than supply-control programs.''

''Unless the demand for drugs is reduced,'' Mauer says, ''the lure of the drug trade will continue to attract young entrepreneurs seeking to make quick profits.''

The increased incarceration rate, the report concludes, is the result of short-sighted, emotional reactions. While full jails and prisons indicate to many politicians and observers that crime policy is working, the report notes that high crime rates persist and the streets are no safer.

The Sentencing Project proposes a number of changes in drug prevention efforts. It calls for treatment programs that address the needs of women. It suggests adoption of an intermediate strategy creating a broad array of sentencing options for non-violent offenders while the long term goal of how to reduce crime is debated. Just as some legislatures have mandated financial impact statements before sentencing legislation is passed, the report calls for ''racial/ethnic impact statements for sentencing poli cy legislation'' to assess how it might affect minorities disproportionately to whites.

Otherwise, Mauer says, ''The message to the generation of [black male] children growing up today is that they will have extensive contact with the criminal-justice system as a part of growing up.''

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