When Jail Becomes Normal

by | Jun 3, 2020 | Politics Featured

For most white Americans, interactions with the police happen rarely, and they’re often respectful or even friendly. Many white people don’t know a single person who’s currently behind bars.

In many black communities — and especially for black men — the situation is entirely different. Some of the statistics can be hard to fathom:

  • Close to 10 percent of black men in their 30s are behind bars on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project.
  • Incarceration rates for black men are about twice as high as those of Hispanic men, five times higher than those of white men and at least 25 times higher than those of black women, Hispanic women or white women.
  • When the government last counted how many black men had ever spent time in state or federal prison — in 2001 — the share was 17 percent. Today, it’s likely closer to 20 percent (and this number doesn’t include people who’ve spent time in jail without being sentenced to prison). The comparable number for white men is about 3 percent.

The rise of mass incarceration over the last half-century has turned imprisonment into a dominant feature of modern life for black Americans. Large numbers of black men are missing from their communities — unable to marry, care for children or see their aging parents. Many others suffer from permanent economic or psychological damage, struggling to find work after they leave prison.

A recent study by the economists Patrick Bayer and Kerwin Kofi Charles found that 27 percent of black men in the prime working years of their lives — between the ages of 25 and 54 — didn’t report earning a single dollar of income in 2014. “That’s a massive number,” Charles, the dean of the Yale School of Management, told me. Incarceration, including the aftereffects, was a major reason.

The anger coursing through America’s streets over the past week has many causes, starting with a gruesome video showing the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But that anger has also been building up for a long time. It is, in part, anger about incarceration having become normal.

An explainer podcast: How has mass incarceration happened? “Justice in America” — hosted by Josie Duffy Rice of The Appeal — tries to answer the question. The Times’s Caity Weaver recommends starting with the first episode, about bail. “I learn so much from this freaking podcast,” Caity tweeted yesterday.

Source: By Email from: https://www.nytimes.com/by/david-leonhardt


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