Two Million and Counting

An Expert Analyzes the Prison Population Boom

The 1990s may be remembered as the United States' most punitive decade. Today, one in every 130 people is living behind bars. The prison population has doubled since 1990. And while the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, it now has 25 percent of its prisoners. On February 15, the nation reached a dubious milestone: For the first time, its prisoner population topped 2 million. That's an estimate documented in a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that supports reform.

To make sense of these statistics, The Village Voice spoke to Marc Mauer, the author of Race to Incarcerate (The New Press, 1999). Mauer has been studying criminal justice policies for 13 years as the assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.

Why does the United States have the world's highest incarceration rate? Do we have more crime than other countries? In property or drug crimes, our rates are quite comparable. We have considerably higher rates of violent crime than other countries, particularly firearms-related crimes. Our rates of murder are about seven or eight times that of any nation in the industrialized world. If you take away the gun-related homicides, that difference drops in half.

photograph from the cover of Race To Incarcerate, the Sentencing Project." used with permission.

Since the early 1980s, the war on drugs has had a very disproportionate impact on the rise of the prison system. We have 11 times as many people serving time for drug offenses today as we did in 1980. So it's not necessarily violent crime that is driving the system now. It's harsh sentencing policies that are reaching their peak impact.

Why do African Americans make up half of the U.S. prison population? When it comes to violence offenses, the African American rates have been higher than for other groups for some period of time. Today, African Americans represent about 45 percent of the people arrested for violent crimes, although much of what we see is a function of poverty, not race. [People who commit] violent crimes are more likely to end up in the prison system than people convicted of other crimes are.

But I think much more [of a factor] over the last 15 years has been the war on drugs. In 1980, 6 percent of inmates were in for drug offenses. That's up to 21 percent today. And an increasing proportion of drug arrests are made in black communities, particularly low-income black communities.

Are there higher rates of drug use among African Americans? The best data is the 1998 National Household Survey done by the Department of Health and Human Services, which showed that blacks represent about 15 percent of monthly drug users. That is just slightly higher than their 13 percent share of the national population.

If you are a black drug user, you're more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than a white drug user. Blacks represent about 35 percent of people arrested for drug offenses and 50 percent of drug convictions.

Why are so many African Americans arrested for drug crimes? There are several reasons. One is that in low-income communities, drug sales are more likely taking place on street corners or in open-air drug markets. They're more visible and it's easier for police to make arrests. And in middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, they may be more likely to take place behind closed doors or in office buildings.

Secondly, I think it's a question of resources. In middle-class communities, when there's a kid with a drug problem, they try to get him into a treatment program. In low-income communities, those resources are not available, so the problem is more likely to develop and become a criminal justice problem.

What are the odds that an African American man will enter the criminal justice system at some point in his life? Three out of every 10 black males born today can expect to do time [in prison] if current trends continue. For Hispanics, it's 16 percent, and white males are at 4 percent.

How does this flow of African American men into the prison system affect the communities left behind? On any given day, one of every three black males ages 20 to 29 is under the supervision of the criminal justice system—either in prison or jail or on probation or parole. So many young males removed from the popula-tion is going to have an effect on the number of marriageable males and fathers who are available to take care of kids.

Depending on the particular state, you lose your right to vote if you're in prison or on probation or parole—in 14 states you can lose it for life—as the result of a felony conviction. We estimate that 4 million people cannot vote as a result of a current or prior felony conviction. Thirteen percent of adult black men cannot currently vote. The irony here is that so many of these young men are in prison because of drug laws, which were developed in a very politicized atmosphere in the 1980s, and they are now powerless to try to affect those drug laws.

As the nation's prison population has grown, crime rates have fallen. Isn't this experiment in crime control working? If you look at the last seven years, you could reach that conclusion because the prison population has gone up and crime has gone down. Unfortunately, if you look at the seven years prior to that, you find the prison population is going up and crime is also going up. [And] if you look at the whole quarter-century of the prison buildup, you have periods where crime goes up, crime goes down, it goes up, it goes down. There is no strong or consistent relationship there.

Who is paying the bill for the rapid expansion of the prison industry? We're spending nearly $40 billion [annually] to lock people up nationally. At the state level, it's really encroached on funds for higher education because the dollars have to come from someplace. We have very little political discussion about this kind of a trade-off. When parents get a tuition bill for their kids' college education, I always think they should get a little note that says tuition went up $200 last year because we decided to build two new prisons. Then we can all decide whether we think that's a good use of our money or not.

Do you see any end to the prison boom? The scale of the race to incarcerate is so dramatic that it's beginning to impinge on other constituencies and issues. More leaders in higher education are concerned about the effect of mass incarceration on their budget. Some business leaders recognize that putting all your resources into an expanding prison system is not good for the development of communities and a stable workforce. Civil rights groups are increasingly concerned about the loss of voting rights. It's not just an issue of prison reform. The implications are becoming more clear to a broad range of society.


Marc Mauer will be speaking at "The Causes and Consequences of Mass Imprisonment in the U.S.A.," an all-day conference on February 26 at the New York University School of Law. Admission is free. To register, call 212-998-8536.

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