Crime has fallen, but incarcerations across the country still soar, making imprisonment for young African American men a fact of life. As Harvard Sociologist Bruce Western suggests, societal inequalities generally seem to us natural, legitimate or fixed. Much of the inequality relies on our society’s perception of young African American male high school dropouts as a problematic societal sub-group. This perception is perhaps the primary obstacle in addressing inequality in the United States: our complacency with it.
Western suggests that we are living in an era of mass imprisonment that has transformed a generation of young black men who make up the mainstay of the permanently disadvantaged population in American society. The effect of imprisonment on social and economic inequality demands our immediate attention.
Only 0.1% of the population in Western Europe is incarcerated. In the U.S., about 700 per 100,000 people are in jail, an entire order of magnitude greater than that of Europe’s population. From the 1920’s through most of 20th century, imprisonment in the U.S. was relatively stable, and comparable Western Europe’s rates today. However, from the mid-70’s on, the penal system grew stricter and the threshold for imprisonment was lowered: about 7 million people have since been brought under police supervision.
As large as these figures are, the volume of prisoners is not the most telling statistic. Instead, we must look more closely incarceration rates for particular sub-groups that include race and educational background. In the past decade, one third of all young black men who were also high school dropouts, were behind bars, a statistic hugely inconsistent with the rest of society. In 1999, 41 percent of all black male high school dropouts aged 22-30 were in prison or jail. In fact, prison time is a more common transition stage for young black males today than college. Nothing distinguishes African Americans from whites like the difference in rates of incarceration (about 8 to 1).
Prison confers an enduring status that causes diminished opportunities for those who are previously incarcerated. One effect of the overwhelming rate of incarceration on society is increased inequality of opportunities for prisoners when they leave, both in pay and employment in general. Incarceration may reduce human capital (lost work experience, diminished skills), erode social ties/relationships to legitimate employment and confer a stigma that repels employers (civil disabilities too). Ex-prisoners are then subject to high risk of unemployment, little prospect for wage growth, day labor, few to no benefits and decreased job security. The stigma with which a convict is forced to live then subjects him to subsistence “at the margins of the labor market… precarious employment in low-wage jobs”.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is the effect that the incarcerated males have on the next generation, on their children, who grow up without father figures, while their fathers wait in jail. One third of African American youth born in 1990, have experienced the absence of a father who was incarcerated. Imprisonment has therefore become a normal event for young black men with little schooling. By sharpening the lines of social exclusion, mass imprisonment has reduced the extent of American citizenship and produced a profound transformation of American race relations in the post-Civil Rights period. Through its effects on economic status and mobility (and families too), mass incarceration has become self-sustaining.
An entire group of our population has become entrenched in a cycle of poverty and diminished life opportunities at the hands of the penal system. By maintaining this unforgiving criminal justice system, we effectively perpetuate the marginalized status of an entire population of young black men, a group of men who would otherwise have the chance to act as role models and breadwinners for families and communities. By diminishing ex-prisoners’ life opportunities, society maintains an underclass that is unable to gain a foothold through a fair paying job, that would allow them to begin on a prosocial life path. The United States has, in effect, decided that this group does not deserve access to jobs or the other legitimate means by which they might reenter mainstream society.
While the criminal justice system is founded on the ideal of safety and security, it has a latent function as well. It acts as a means of social control that generates inequality, while essentially doing away with what many view as a potentially problematic group of idle young, African American males. When such a huge disparity exists between the actual trends in crime and the soaring incarceration rates, it is obvious that the criminal justice system no longer acts solely in the name of public safety.
*Statistics in this article are based on a 2009 lecture given by Harvard Sociologist Bruce Western at Villanova UniversityBy Amy Richards, BA Re:LIFE Inc Blogger