The issues raised by the Ferguson protests are complex, but the frustrations with the disparities in our justice system have been well documented. A new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), points to the profound racial disparities in our nation’s prison system and calls for an end to the mass incarceration of minorities — especially for low-level offenses. The report is based on research documenting that the negative consequences to our society from mass incarceration outweighs any benefits — and that the consequences are too profound for our nation to continue locking up a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Yes, that’s right — a full quarter of the world’s prisoners are in U.S. lockup facilities. The United States. has only about one-fifth of the world’s population, but over the past 30 years the nation has quadrupled its number of prisoners. The misguided “war against drugs,” along with expanded use of mandatory minimum and longer sentences, drove up the prison population exponentially over the past three decades. The U.S. prison increase fell disproportionately on impoverished inner city communities of people of color.
Our prisons reflect our social policies and priorities. As a society, we continue to pay high taxes to support our prison system without asking the logical question: What are we getting for our tax dollars? The answer in part is a lot of expense without significant crime reduction, according to the NAS report. What we are also getting is a tremendous disruption in certain poor and marginalized communities of color. These disruptions rip apart the foundations of our society, as we see so dramatically in the news from Ferguson.
The impact of our prison policies reaches far beyond the people who are incarcerated. Two million children in the nation have a parent in prison. Even upon release, the parent’s prison record results in lower earnings that impact their families and their communities.
Additionally, the U.S. prison system impacts disproportionately on poor communities of people of color. What this means is dramatically illustrated in the NAS report. A young African-American male who was a high school dropout in the late 1940s stood a 15 percent chance of spending a year or more in prison. One generation later, by the late 1970s, the same African-American male who was a high school dropout stood a 68 percent chance of spending a year or more in prison. As the NAS Committee’s Chair explained in an interview: Within one generation, it became a “normative experience” to go to prison.
The NAS report has a series of recommendations that must be swiftly implemented. Dismantle mandatory sentences, for it is a fundamental principle that sentences should be individualized and proportionate to the offender and the underlying conduct. Sentences should be crafted to enhance citizenship through rehabilitation back into society and the community. Community-based alternatives to incarceration cost less and have better outcomes at reducing offending. Prisons need to be revamped to provide offenders with the necessary skills and tools to return to their communities and become productive citizens.
Many of these recommendations have already been tested in the juvenile system. Across the nation, diversion in the form of counseling and restorative justice practices replaces pre-trial detention for children. Community-based alternatives are replacing juvenile prisons. More youth are being tried in the juvenile, rather than the adult, court.
As a result, juvenile crime is down, juvenile arrests are down, the number of juveniles incarcerated is down, and states are saving taxpayer dollars with better outcomes.
It is time to replicate these successful juvenile practices for adults — especially young adults in the 18-21 age group. Many of our young adults receive a second, and even a third and fourth chance through generous diversion policies practiced by law enforcement on college campuses, but it is now time to ensure that all our young adults receive the benefit of interventions, diversion and community-based alternatives. Only then will we begin to move past the disparities and tragedy we experienced in Ferguson.
Elizabeth Clarke of Evanston, Ill., is founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a coalition working to transform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.