America – “Land of the Free” – leads the world in locking people up. Yes, our incarceration rates exceed those in the most repressive countries like Russia or China.
Can it be that Americans lead the world in criminality? I think not.
Our over-incarceration is really a case of black over-incarceration. The black percentage of inmates way exceeds their percentage of the general population. It’s a holocaust for black communities and a significant contributor to our gaping socio-economic divide. I’ve written about how single motherhood exacerbates that divide. Over 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers – partly because so many black men’s marriageability is reduced by the criminal justice system. In Milwaukee, over half the black men in their thirties have been in prison.
It’s tempting to say, well, all this does reflect a higher rate of criminal behavior – if blacks didn’t do so many crimes they wouldn’t fill the prisons. But, in partial answer, blacks are more likely than whites to be imprisoned for comparable offenses. And one reason for that is blacks are more targeted by police. Discrimination? Rather, it’s mainly because they live in more crime-ridden areas.
Now we get into a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Citizens in crime-infested neighborhoods need more police attention, for their own protection. And obviously it makes sense for police to deploy resources to locales where crime is concentrated. But on the other hand, if you go looking for something, chances are you will find it – so heavy police attention in black neighborhoods means that a lot of blacks will get caught up in that net, whereas quiet white neighborhoods are lightly policed with consequently fewer arrests.
This sounds like a hopeless dilemma. But there’s another big fact: a lot of black arrests and imprisonments are drug-related. This is a huge wound for America that is self-inflicted. Whatever may be the harm of drug use, the harm of the “War on Drugs” is vastly greater. And if decriminalization led to more drug use – very doubtful – the harm of that increase would be vastly outweighed by the societal benefits of stopping the misguided drug war.
Citizens in crime-ridden black neighborhoods do not benefit when police pull out half the males for drug-related offenses. They would benefit, greatly, if police could stop doing that, to concentrate their efforts instead on combating the violent crimes, muggings, burglaries, etc, that plague these neighborhoods. That would go far toward mending the broken relationships between the police and the policed.
Another point: kids growing up in bad neighborhoods tend to do badly, and bad neighborhoods are hard to fix (as half a century of well-intentioned social programs proves). But The Economist recently noted some pilot programs giving people vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. Voilà, their children did better. But, the magazine lamented, giving every poor black family such a “golden ticket” would cost about $30 billion a year. My reaction: Say what? Only $30 billion?! Why, the government loses more than that between its sofa cushions. (Almost literally: it’s estimated the feds make $125 billion in improper payments annually.) Thirty billion is less than 1% of the federal budget. Sounds like a no-brainer bargain to me, surely a better expenditure than all those other social programs mentioned.