The table below, from The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress since Smith and Welch by Derek Neal and Armin Rick, gives the fraction of black male high school dropouts employed, and below that the fraction that are institutionalized -- mostly in jail.
So, bottom left, in the last census, 19.2% of 20-24 year olds were employed, and 26.4 (!) percent were in jail. Read up, and it was not always thus. Of the cohort born in the 1930s, at the same age, 68% were employed and 6.7% were in jail -- in a society and criminal justice system that was, whatever our current faults, much more overtly racist. The numbers for older men are just as shocking if you haven't see these before.
|Source: Derek Neal and Armin Rick|
Becky Petit's Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress calculates the cumulative risk of imprisonment, which gives a sense of how many people are in this quandary.
|Source: Becky Petit|
The main point of Petit's book, and echoed by Neal and Rick, is that institutionalized people don't show up in standard statistics. Employment to all population is, for minority men, even worse than the standard ratio of employment to non-institutionalized population. Which was already amazingly low.
A move toward more punitive treatment of arrested offenders drove prison growth in recent decades, and this trend is evident among arrested offenders in every major crime category. Changes in the severity of corrections policies have had a much larger impact on black communities than white communities because arrest rates have historically been much greater for blacks than whites.But while this explains a larger number in jail, it doesn't square with Petit's finding of the much larger numbers that flow through jail. If the same number get arrested and spend more time in jail, then we would not see larger numbers with lifetime experience of jail.
The other suspect is the war on drugs. Neal and Rick do find that the rise in Federal incarceration is mostly about drugs:
Between 1989 and 2010, the stock of federal prisoners increased by more than 250 percent....The Federal prison population increased by about 150,000 persons over this period, [that's at any one time, so the total number of people flowing through the system is much larger] and increases for only three offense categories account for almost 90 percent of this growth... drug offenses...81,000, weapons and immigration offenses...29,000 and 21,000 respectively...The stock of prisoners serving time for traditional violent and property crimes remained roughly constant..And overall, it is the one category where arrests rose:
|Source: Neal and Rick|
What is life like for people in this situation? How do they even get by with so few working? I've been reading the reviews, both positive and negative, of Alice Goffman's On the Run. (The book itself is still on the in pile alas.) But it seems like it gives us a useful sense of the broader impact of the war on drugs and the intense association with the criminal justice system.
Interesting observations fro the New York Times Review:
The war on drugs mangled, if not destroyed, any trust between residents of distressed urban communities and the authorities.
Young men like Mike often avoid girlfriends for fear that the women, for their own reasons, might turn their paramours inYes, if the cops are looking for you, the first thing they'll do is ask a girlfriend, or if there was one, a wife, and the cops can be pretty persuasive. Then we wonder why marriage is rare and men are absent in their children's lives.
As you can see, I'm attracted to the view that a lot of this disaster is one more awful consequence of the pointless war on drugs.
The New York Times has come out in an excellent series of editorials for Marijuana legalization. The column on this prohibition's effects on minorities "The injustice of Marijuana Arrests"
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.Sometimes, unintended consequences reach farther than one would imagine.
Some of the comments speculated that the high school dropout rate decreased, so we're just seeing a smaller sample of really pathological people. Here's Petit's graph of the dropout rate. It is smaller, but that doesn't strike me as enough to account for the rather dramatic changes in employment, incarceration, or flow through the criminal justice system.
|Source: Becky Petit|