Saturday, April 18, 2015

GateHouse: Mass incarceration enters the national consciousness

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
April 17, 2015

This week, Grammy Award winner John Legend announced an initiative, Free America, a movement to bring attention to the ills of mass incarceration. He has scheduled a series of performances at correctional facilities in various states, along with press events, to raise awareness of the far-reaching impact of over-incarceration. 

“We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend said in an interview with The Associated Press. “When you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration.”

How serious is the problem? Last year, the New York Times described America’s mass incarceration problem in this way: “Since the early 1970s, the nation’s prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million, making it the world’s biggest. That is five to 10 times the incarceration rate in other democracies.”

Race and poverty often overlap and as a result a growing effort to crack down on crime has overwhelmingly fell on communities of color, and particularly on young black men.

According to the Washington Post, minorities constitute 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Men under the age of 40, the poorly educated, people with mental illness and those dependent on drugs and alcohol are also over-represented. 

In her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Ohio State University associate professor Michelle Alexander wrote that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans. She compared the modern criminal justice system to the Jim Crow system of the South that mandated the segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation.

Under Jim Crow laws, black Americans were relegated to a subordinate status for nearly a century. Things like literacy tests for voters and laws designed to prevent blacks from serving on juries were commonplace in nearly a dozen Southern states, reported National Public Radio.

Alexander wrote that although Jim Crow laws are now off the books, millions of blacks arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has branded them as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Today, more than one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars, and the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, both in terms of the actual number of inmates and as a percentage of the total population. According to the Prison Policy Institute, there are more people locked up in the U.S. than in China. In fact, the U.S. is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite accounting for just 5 percent of the overall global population.

With more prisoners comes more cost. Americans are spending $80 billion a year on incarcerating criminals. State spending on corrections increased by more than 400 percent, between 1980 and 2009. 

Spending at the state level has outpaced budget increases for just about every other function of government, including education, transportation and welfare. Only spending on Medicaid at the state level has grown faster in the last 20 years.

Increased incarceration comes at more than just a monetary cost. John Legend is also championing the reduction of some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. “Once you have that tag of a felony on your name, it’s hard for you to do anything,” Legend said. “Getting those reduced to misdemeanors really impacted a lot of lives and we hope to launch more initiatives like that around the country.” 

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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