Criminal Justice and Poverty–The Disturbing Connection

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Notice the dramatic increase in the 1980’s pictured in this graph from Wikipedia.

It’s alarming and ironic that in America, the land of the free, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Overcrowded prisons hold 2.3 million people- a number so big it rivals that of 92 countries in the world! 60% of the prisoners are of a racial or ethnic minority. More than 1/3 are Black.

Why are there so many prisoners?  One reason for these prisoners are mandatory sentencing laws, enacted throughout the 1980’s such as “three strikes” you’re out, which drive people to prison in numbers unlike any other time in our history. America is tougher on crime and defines criminal activity loosely now and unevenly state to state. For example,  80% of increased prison sentences in the 90’s were for non violent possesion of marijuana. Yes, marijuana. In my city, police look the other way for minor possession of this drug but in other states it means prison time. A 2010 Pennsylvania commentary contends that non violent offences there, such as shoplifting, drunk driving, and juvenile crime were being sent to prison more often than they were sent to treatment programs.

How do these sentences relate to poverty? The majority of former prisoners, stripped of voting rights, food stamp access, public housing eligibility and many other basic rights and services, experience a 40% reduction in lifetime wages and constantly fight unemployment. According to a 2010 study by Harvard professor, Bruce Western, only 1 in 4 former prisoners will escape poverty. This in turn has heavy impact on the children in a prisoner’s family and is a cause of generational poverty.

Legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, summed up the impact that “justice” now has on America, on African American people, and on poverty in a January 2012 interview with Democracy Now, “I think we’ve become blind in this country to the ways in which we’ve managed to reinvent a caste-like system here in the United States, one that functions in a manner that is as oppressive, in many respects, as the one that existed in South Africa under apartheid and that existed under Jim Crow here in the United States,” she begins. “Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion…millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes…[and] are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement…”  Please consider reading the transcript of Alexander’s 2012 Democracy Now interview. She discusses the problem in greater depth and describes how her life evolved from legal scholar into her role as an advocate.

Justice is blind. Let’s tell her what actions are being taken in her name. Prisons have evolved from institutions built solely to ensure public safety into industries profiting from social injustice. They represent America’s tragedy; wasted lives and minds and failure to address the needs of minorities and poor people.  There is a proper role for correctional imprisonment and rehabilitation of criminals but, today, we also need to rehabilitate our justice system which is dramtically out of balance and no longer solely functioning to protect society. It has become a root cause of generational poverty and a primary reason for higher poverty rates in communities of color.

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