Number of Blacks in Prison Nears 1 Million

"We're incarcerating an entire generation of people."

WASHINGTON - Come the new millennium, the number of African American adults behind bars will hit the million mark for the first time, according to an analysis of Justice Department statistics. That represents nearly an eightfold increase from three decades ago, when there were only 133,226 blacks in prison.

By 2000, roughly one in 10 black men will be in prison - a statistic with major social implications because prisoners don't have jobs, pay taxes or care for their children at home. And because many states bar felons from voting, at least one in seven black men will have lost the right to vote.

"These numbers are staggering," said Laurie Levensen, a former federal prosecutor and associate dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "We're incarcerating an entire generation of people."

Why blacks contribute about half of all prison inmates when they are only 13 percent of the U.S. population is subject to much speculation. Some specialists blame poverty or lack of opportunity. Others say police concentrate in poor urban areas because street crimes such as drug dealing and armed robbery are more visible, and residents there demand more police protection.

The bottom line is that crime policy has become a substitute for public policy, said Jerome Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an Arlington, VA. legal reform group that analyzed the Justice Department data.

"Over the past 20 years, there has been a terrible propensity on the part of politicians to deal with difficult economic, social, family and personal problems with a meat ax - the criminal-justice system," said Miller, a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

Over the past five decades, the disparity between races has widened dramatically as minorities have replaced whites in the prison population, according to the center.

In 1950, whites made up about 65 percent of all state and federal inmates, white minorities made up 35 percent. Today, the opposite is true, with 35 percent of the prison population made up of whites.

In Washington State, blacks make up 23 percent of the inmate population in the state Department of Corrections, while constituting just 3.4 percent of the state population, state officials say.

Native Americans make up 3.2 percent of the state prison population while representing 1.9 percent of the general population. Asians account for 2.4 percent of the state prison population and 5.9 percent of the general population.

Those of Hispanic origin (who may also be counted among the other categories) make up 13 percent of the state prison population and 6 percent of the general population.

"The face of crime to white Americans is now that of a black man," said David Bostis, senior political analyst at the Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that specializes in black community issues.

"It means 10 percent of (black men) are not productive," said Massachusetts state Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat. "Not only are their talents not available for development of the community, but the community spends a large amount of time dealing with their absence."

"There are so many people in the community going to prison you start to have the welfare effect, where it becomes acceptable - a rite of passage - for African American men to go to prison," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Another concern is the mass disenfranchisement of African Americans.

According to an October 1998 report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based legal research and services organization, in a dozen states, 30 percent to 40 percent of the next generation of black men will permanently lose the right to vote if current trends continue. In nine states, one in four black men can never vote again because they were convicted of a felony.

Upon release from prison in Washington State, felons automatically lose the right to vote. They may petition the state for reinstatement of that right, according to Veltry Johnson, public information chief for the state Department of Corrections.

This loss of voting rights nationwide not only highlights the eroding political power base of blacks, but it also calls into question the notion of democracy in America, Shelton said.

Some sociologists say the explanation lies in high rates of poverty. African Americans are more likely to end up with a prison term because they can't afford a good legal defense team, or a "sentencing consultant" who can help reduce the time spent locked up.

Lack of opportunity plays a role as well, they say, pointing out that the vast majority of inmates are functionally illiterate, which means they can't even fill out a job application.

More money for alleviating poverty, however, is not the answer, said Robert Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit group working with low-income black communities. He said the key is money for programs that reach into the community to help build character and values.

"The reason young men engage in criminal behavior is not just for money, it is to make a name for themselves, to have some expression of worth, even if that expression is self-destructive," he said.

Woodson also said he believed blacks are not discriminated against by the criminal-justice system. Rather, he said, there is a greater concentration of police in black communities because the residents insist on more policing to deal with street crime.

Looking at the prison population through the race lens is a flawed project, agreed Robert Pambianco, chief policy counsel at the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"All this talk about race and statistics is a red herring thrown in by people who want to return to the 60's," said Pambianco. "It is an attempt to undermine efforts to keep violent offenders in prison."

The question, he said, is whether the individual committed the crime. And if so, was race a factor in how the individual was convicted or sentenced?

And the answer, some criminologists say, is that often it is. Evidence of prejudice in the criminal-justice system is overwhelming, they say.

First, criminologists such as William Chambliss, professor of sociology at George Washington University and past president of the American Society of Criminologists, point to law enforcement.

Police, he says, admit that they focus their resources on black communities, particularly when enforcing drug laws and despite studies that show whites consume more drugs than blacks. "It is much easier to go into black community and pop someone selling drugs on the street corner than to go into a suburb where drug use happens behind closed doors," Levensen said.

Blacks are also more frequently viewed as suspects, pulled over and targeted by raids, Chambliss said.

A survey of traffic stops in Volusia County, Fla., for instance, showed nearly 70 percent of those stopped were blacks or Hispanic, according to Georgetown University Law Professor David Cold, author of "No Equal Justice."

Police look for crimes in the ghetto, and that's where they find them," Chambliss said.

Criminologists say sentencing guidelines were imposed in part to rid the criminal-justice system of sentences that varied dramatically because of prejudicial factors such as race, gender, individual circumstance or geography. But African Americans still received sentences an average of six months longer than whites for committing the same crime, according to a 1998 University of Georgia study.


By: Louise D. Palmer, The Boston Globe. This article includes information from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Staff. This article appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Tuesday, March 2, 1999. Pages A-1 & A-4.