African American Males and Disparity in the Justice System
Within our justice system there is a large disparity between the total number of African American males living within our society and living within our prison walls. African Americans males are often faced with overcoming environmental, economic and sociological inequalities while growing up as well as a lack of opportunity. Many of these issues may in fact lead to un-proportional numbers of African American males being incarcerated. In additional prejudicial behaviors by the judicial community may also be a factor in the disproportionate incarceration statistics.
More resources should be allotted at the community level to provide for disadvantage minorities to succeed in life and avoid participating in criminal activities, as well as providing resources for education of those within the system to combat prejudice and effect change. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) African Americans comprise nearly 1 million of the 2. 3 million incarcerated population and 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated as of 2001. As can be seen these numbers are disproportionately higher then for their white counterparts.
One of the main reasons stated by the NAACP as a causal factor for this disparity is related to inner city crime rates that are prompted by social and economic isolation. There is little opportunity for employment and high drop rates amongst inner city African American males. A study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicates that employment for under educated African American males was approximately 25% while the incarceration number is around 40% showing that they are more likely to be incarcerated then employed.
When prisoners are then released there is increase recidivism when there is no employment opportunities and the cycle repeats. In addition the family structure suffers as resources are decreased as family members are imprisoned. Studies have shown that children who parents are imprisoned are more likely to be victims or crime themselves, have little educational opportunity and frequently live in poverty, all which lead to increased propensity for criminal activity in the future.
Lack of opportunity is forefront in the disparity between whites and African American levels of incarceration. The book The system in black and white: Exploring the Connections Between Race, Crime and Justice states that “Minority youths are often from neighborhoods plagued by poverty, high unemployment and underemployment, family dysfunction, low education, and crime. The minority youth is therefore, marginalized, and such marginalization engenders delinquent acts” (Jones-Brown, Markowitz, 2001. p172).
By segregating minorities, primarily African Americans, into these areas without providing opportunity we perpetuate the problem by providing little to no opportunities for legitimate success. The authors indicate that the lack of access to social and economic opportunities and the attainment of socially desired symbols of success directly leads an individual to obtain those items by socially unacceptable means such as criminal activities. This general theme of the consequences of segregated communities is shared by Loury in his work Race, Incarceration and American Values.
“Closed and bounded social structures-like racially homogenous urban ghettos-create contexts where ‘pathological’ and ‘dysfunctional’ cultural forms emerge, but these forms are neither intrinsic to the people caught in the structures nor independent of the behavior of the people who stand outside them”. (Loury, 2008. p 33. ) In this case the author is clearly pointing out that it is the situation that creates the criminal not any overt difference in the individuals themselves.
There is no born propensity for criminal activity just a lack of social and environmental resources available to individuals living in these areas to allow for success based on achievement. These areas have developed as an ugly reminder of our one time overtly prejudicial society that deemed African Americans as inferior, lazy beings with little or no ability to learn. The path to participating in criminal activities for many African American adolescent males frequently lies in participation in gang activities.
In an article entitled Poverty, Broken Homes, Violence: The Making of a Gang Member the authors state a strong correlation between the lack of opportunity and gang involvement. Risk factors include many that are prevalent in the before mentioned ghetto like areas such as “having gang members in the family already, histories of sexual or physical abuse, growing up in poverty, having access to weapons and drugs, and a lack of success in other areas of life, such as school” (Mueller, 2014).
Gangs frequently form a surrogate family for adolescents in poverty stricken urban areas as well as providing a certain level of protection from other criminal elements. Another obstacle which African American males face is one of negatively differential treatment within the justice system. It is assumed that part of the reason for the disparity between whites and African Americans within the prison systems is related to the war on drugs. According to the NAACP African American are 12% of the population of drug users, 38% of those arrested and 59% of those convicted.
These overwhelming numbers of convictions would lead us to believe that African American are committing more drug crimes yet the percentage of drug users is actually lower then their white counterparts. Sentences for African Americans convicted of drug crimes are almost equal to the amount of time that white males would spend in jail for violent crimes. According to author of the New Jim Crow this inequality in the justice system is a way to keep minorities from achievement while appearing to have put aside prejudice. It can be argued that our prison system in fact serves the purpose of a vehicle for social control.
The long-term effects of conviction separate felons from the general population for life, excluding them from contributing effectively in mainstream society. Once they are released, they are often denied the right to vote, excluded from juries, and relegated to a racially segregated and subordinated existence. Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy.
They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits—much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era (Alexander, M. 2010). Another issues related to the disproportionate numbers of African American males within the prison system are related to previous acts. Again we must look to the lack of opportunity in youth as a leading cause for juvenile detainment. According to the Juvenile Justice information exchange socioeconomic class plays a role in detainment.
In delinquency matters indigent children remain within the system because the courts are reluctant to release these children back to the environments they came from as opposed to children with means. “The child welfare system, public schools, and neighborhood police presence — are structured so that few meaningful distinctions can be made between poor children and those who present a true danger to the community” (Birkhead, 2012). The impact of early interactions with the justice system can negatively impact a person for life.
As adults persons who are known within the criminal justice system are more likely to be convicted of crimes as well as facing harsher sentencing as repeat offenders. This practice may not appear prejudicial as it is appropriate to face harsher sentences for repeat offenders, but is prejudicial as to how the person became a repeat offender in the first place. The above issues point to discrimination at a structural level not an individual one, but there are structural cases of discrimination that may support individual discrimination such at the Stop and Frisk law.
This law allows officers to stop, question and physically frisk someone they deem suspicious. One of the main problematic issues of this practice is one of oversight; there are no governing rules as to what constitutes suspicion besides individual officers feelings. While this practice has led to some arrests, they are numerically insignificant and have been deemed unconstitutional but not illegal. According to the American Civil Liberties Union 85 percent of those stopped were found to have not committed a crime or have any contraband on their persons.
The failure of this practice has far reaching implications as in it has served to foster feelings of mistrust between police officers and the minority population, specifically African American youths. Identifying issues and making changes to treatment of African American males, or any other minority, within the judicial system is a project undertaken by the Sentencing Project. They define Illegitimate or unwarranted racial disparity as the “dissimilar treatment of similarly situated people based on race” (201, p1. ).
There goal is to acknowledge the effects of disparity building at each phase within the criminal justice system and it’s cumulative effects on an individual. They encourage communication within the system i. e. : law enforcement, lawyers, judges, prison personnel and parole workers to develop plans to reform individuals while working towards a systematic change. Through research they have addressed the need for cultural competency training within the judicial system and have made it a requirement. They also address issues pertaining
to treatment of early delinquency, severity of crime as well as severity of sentencing. The Project allocates resources for research into other sentencing alternatives that have demonstrated success over incarceration. In addition to looking at the treatment of individuals within the system they provide guidance to policy makers in regards to investments in communities. They support low-income areas in providing education and employment opportunities, access to health care, including mental health care, and substance abuse treatment.
Through research the project has identified that un equal opportunities for access to resources negatively affects the low-income individuals and their families. Simply changing the criminal justice system itself will not singularly decrease the disparity between the numbers of African Americans incarcerated in comparison to their white counterparts. Change must begin in the communities. Outreach programs started as early as birth are necessary to effectively create change. One group who sees the need for this change and has answered the call is the Harlem’s Children’s Zone.
This group services approximately 17,000 children throughout the Metropolitan area. They begin with providing parenting classes, which outlines the need for proper nutrition and health care as well as courses on other parenting issues with a focus on the at risk child. They provide charter schools with longer school days as well as tutoring programs for those unable to attend. Resources are also available for crisis intervention, access to mental and physical health care, offering assistance in obtaining services such as food stamps, as well as assistance in forming community actions groups to combat crime and drugs.
The group also provides afterschool programs including teen groups, fitness, educational, and classes on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and access to community gardens. Although our society has made great strides in the area of equality, with more African Americans holding important positions, negative differential treatment persists. Poverty stricken communities where there is little opportunity and the prevalence of gang activity increases the likelihood that African American youths will grow up to participate in criminal activities leading to incarceration.
The first step towards change is understanding the need for increased resources in poverty stricken areas to provide access for at risk youths to community centers, hot meal programs, and safe afterschool venues. The second step is making these projects a reality. Although the government had earmarked 10 million dollars for neighborhoods to develop similar programs to the Harlem’s Children’s Center project it is not enough, resources must be provided by individual states, communities and persons to combat poverty and provide resources for children.
In addition equality in how individuals are treated within the system must continue to be addressed by groups like the Sentencing Project. By early intervention and continued education and support we can move towards equality and diminish the numbers of African American males spending their lives within the criminal justice system. The long-term benefits of these actions will be felt by individuals as well as the community at large with decreased crime and access to the rich resource of an educated youth.