Prison: No Deterrent

LAST fall the Washington-based Sentencing Project released a study showing that nearly 1 in 3 African-American men between ages 20 and 29 were under criminal-justice supervision (prison, probation, or parole) on any given day.

Last week, the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) released its own study showing that nearly 40 percent of black men in their 20s in California are imprisoned or on probation on any given day. This is in contrast to 5 percent of white men and 11 percent of Hispanic men.

Both studies prompt two obvious questions: Why? And what can be done about it?

The center lists a number of possible answers to ''why.'' It points to tougher new sentencing laws, particularly stiffer penalties for the possession and sale of crack cocaine than for the powder form of the drug. It also says more money is spent on prison construction in California than on drug-treatment programs, job training, and educational initiatives.

But there is another element. Richard Moran, a sociology professor at Mount Holyoke College, says more and more inner-city blacks no longer fear prison. To them, jail is not a deterrent. Research suggests that a growing number of criminals even prefer it to probation. It's become the cost of growing up, of doing business. And, Moran says, the more these young men come in contact with the prison system, the less they fear it.

Inner-city young men often adjust well to prison. They may be reunited with friends, fellow gang members, and relatives - sometimes even parents. For many, it's status-enhancing. They may return home as a celebrity. In prison, they may also find something lacking in their lives - structure.

It's not that these men like to go to jail, but rather that too often it's no big deal. As the CJCJ says, many minority communities have become ''prisonized.'' In recent years the United States tripled its prison population while crime fell 3 percent. Prison has become a part of street culture; the question is how to keep new recruits from entering that culture.

There is no easy answer. But a serious suggestion comes from the authors of the California study. As a result of the war on drugs, 60 percent of prisoners in the state are serving time for nonviolent offenses. If the state diverted half those offenders from imprisonment, it would save taxpayers $848 million annually. The funds could be used to operate drug-treatment programs, prevention programs, and other community-based alternatives.

The ultimate answer, obviously, is strong families and strong communities - the most powerful antidotes to a street culture of criminality. That means using every initiative available, from organized inspirational work, like that pioneered by Jesse Jackson and others, to ensuring continuing follow-up on the pledges made at the Million Man March in Washington. Only when the circumstances of black men in the inner city change will prison be the deterrent it should be.

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