Sunday, January 3, 2010

Race and prisons in America

The New York Review of Books published an article by David Cole on America's prisons in November 2009. Some of the statistics jump out. For example; the US incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation on earth (its rate of incarceration is 40% higher than its nearest 'rivals' Russia and Belarus); while african-americans make up just 13% of the US population, they represent over 50% of the prison population (together with Latinos, the two groups account for over 70% of US inmates); blacks are 8 times more likely to end up in prison in the US than whites.

The article notes that "For an entire cohort of young black men in America's inner cities, incarceration has become the more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception". This observation has the hollow ring of familiarity to anyone that has read Malcolm X's autobiographical account of the young black man's experience of life in the ghetto suburbs of major American cities during the pre-civil rights era years of the '40s and '50s. (Or for that matter watched The Wire, or read Jay-Z's account of how he got involved in selling drugs).

Up to 1975 the US incarceration rate had been steady at about 100 per 100,000. Since then, the rate has ballooned to 700 per 100,000.

According to the article:

"Drug convictions alone account for more than 80 percent of the total increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995. In 2008, four of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one in five was for distribution; fully half of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses."

Blacks make up about 14% of monthly drug users, around the same proportion they represent of the total population. However, the statistics on drug crime are hugely disproportionate:

"37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black as well as 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses. Blacks serve almost as much time in prison for drug offenses (average of 58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (average of 61.7 months)."

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