The high rate of blacks in prison is astounding levels.
There are two consequences of this. First, too many blacks live in high-crime areas, which research concludes leads to higher stress In other words, we are making life harder for our families and ourselves.
The second consequence is the high rates of black incarceration. I am no Pollyanna. Some of these folks need to be in jail. Intimidating people with a gun is no laughing matter, and criminals should face the consequences of their actions. However — and only the most hawkish criminal justice-types dispute this — far too many blacks are in jail for too long for first-time and non-violent offenses.
Rectifying this situation is important, so the black community can reclaim lost potential.
The data is staggering. The lifetime chances of a black person going to prison are 18.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For whites, it is just 3.4 percent and for Hispanics, 10 percent. It is so bad that it's estimated that 32 percent of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetimes. The sheer magnitude is astounding. One in three! I am not sure there is a way to measure the total lost potential.
Using the bureau's data, I compiled the following two charts.
What can we take from this?
There is nothing in the data to indicate that blacks will leave their perch at the top in terms of total incarceration — at least anytime soon. We can all see that five times as many blacks are in jail during what should be the start of their careers. Instead, time spent in jail means time away from family, time not saving for retirement, time not contributing to the community. (Read our story about the Troy Davis case.)
While it is unlikely to occur, it would be advisable for President Barack Obama to instigate a national commission on reducing the nation's prison population. We need to consider a variety of measures, including reducing prison sentences for non-violent offenders, drastically increasing funds for rehabilitation and providing much more money to integrate released offenders into society.
It is a tired cliché, but second, until we address the underlying cause of criminality, future generations will only live the same lives.
High poverty begets desperation, which always leads to involvement with the underground economy and almost inevitably jail.
Recently, I watched a documentary on Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School. It made me simultaneously happy and fearful. I felt such joy watching those who made it to graduation. You could feel the joy. Then I felt so distressed at how many students seemed indifferent to their future.
We have to reach those students before they become part of the 32 percent spending time in jail and not building a life.
Marvin King is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi and writes the blog King Politics.