Racial disparities continue to drive the mass incarceration of people of color according to a new report released by The Sentencing Project, which found that one in every three black men will go to prison in his lifetime.
The report indicates blacks face an implicit racial bias throughout the criminal justice system. They are more likely than whites to be stopped by police and arrested, they often have inferior representation in court, and further, they receive harsher sentences.
Even the life of a black victim proves less valuable than his white counterpart. The report notes substantially more offenders receive the death penalty for killing a white person than a black person, though victim counts average the same across races.
With every stage of the system ostensibly set up against African-Americans, communities and families fall suit to unnecessary forecasts, creating a vicious cycle many cannot break.
“Racism is exhibited in the practice – we are stopped more often, we are busted more often, we are sentenced longer, and as a result of the conviction history, we’re denied employment and a whole lot of other stuff more often,” Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco, tells theGrio. “If you’re hunting for rabbits, and you occasionally shoot a pheasant, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were hunting for pheasants. When I look at all the people of color getting locked up around the country, I can say they’re hunting for us.”
If policing and enforcement policies were applied evenhandedly, Nunn believes these numbers would change. Finding one criminal among the many innocent does not merit totalitarian monitoring of certain communities however, as his analogy suggests.
Nunn, an activist who previously served decades behind bars for felony murder, brings up drug policy as a testament to the disproportionate targeting of African-Americans.
“There’s a number of different studies that reflect that drug usage for black people is no different than white people, but when you look at the arrests and conviction rates, you would swear that black people get loaded every day, and they’re the only ones in the country doing them,” Nunn says.
Numbers speak volumes on racist practices
Data compiled by The Sentencing Project supports Nunn’s statements.
The report cites a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse surveying drug usage among U.S. high school students from 1975-2011, which found that white students were actually more likely to have abused an illegal substance than black students. Yet black youth were arrested for drug crimes at rates more than double those of white youth.
Also documented in the report, a study conducted in 1993 in Los Angeles found that 95 percent of crack cocaine defendants prosecuted in California state courts were black and 100 percent of crack cocaine defendants prosecuted in federal court were either black or other racial minorities.
Reports the Huffington Post, The Sentencing Project submitted its report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in October in advance of the U.N.’s review of American compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The problem is that who gets caught is not a fair and even process,” comments Lynne Lyman, State Director for the California division of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It happens in terms of how black offenders are treated in the criminal justice system. What they’re charged with is often statistically worse than what white offenders are charged with; the length of time they’ve been sentenced to is way higher than what a white individual that committed the same crime is sentenced to. At every stage – arrest, prosecution, incarceration – they are disproportionately impacted.”
Incarceration ‘a part of living’
With incarceration prevalent in minority communities, many consider going to jail a fact of life.
Such skewed and despondent outlooks take a toll on youth and families.
“Young men say it’s just a part of living,” Susan Burton, Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in South L.A., points out. “There are so many men that bear the burden of a criminal conviction.”
“It compromises their ability to be useful in our community,” she continues. “You have a really crippled male presence or totally missing. The things they’ve done, if they’d have been in another community and another culture, they’d have never been tagged for it. They’d have never been criminalized for it more than likely. I’m not saying it was without err, without fault, but our system is unbending.”
Burton spent 15 years in and out of prison for illegal use of drugs, a crime she says could have been circumvented had she received treatment for her addictions.
Not until she ventured to Santa Monica, a predominately white neighborhood, was she able to access mental health care.
She’s since set up a home to help formerly incarcerated women get back on their feet.
“It is entrapment,” Burton says. “You go to prison and you’re treated so cruelly. You’re treated traumatically. You’re treated inhumane. Then, once you leave they tell you to make a life out of $200.”
The small sum buys little, she points out, particularly for someone with no ID, paperwork or home. For many, the path back to prison seems inevitable.
“The treatment that you got while you were away in prison is like being in a minefield in the army,” she explains. “You have to protect yourself from incidents inside and then you have to give up all your rights as a human being, all your dignity to be treated any type away. You’re assigned to a job that you work for 10 cents an hour so you’re catapulted back into slavery. All of those dynamics have an emotional impact.”
Diana Zuniga’s story
Diana Zuniga spends every day seeking justice for her father and uncle, two men who succumbed to personal battles and now find themselves incarcerated.
Zuniga’s father was an addict, who experienced the ups and downs of substance abuse during her youth. On one particularly grave occasion, Zuniga’s family called law enforcement seeking assistance to help manage their father’s low spin.
“Instead of offering help, they beat up my dad so bad that he now has a metal plate in head,” she recalls.
Rather than reformation, Zuniga’s father cycled in and out of prison, where he remains today.
Her uncle fell victim to California’s three-strikes law when he committed his third burglary felony. What Zuniga’s family would learn once he went to prison was that her uncle had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was stealing in order to pay for prescription medicine.
Due to stigma in the community, he hadn’t disclosed his condition.
“There’s not any mental health education in the community, especially in communities of color who think it’s taboo,” notes Zuniga.
As a result, her uncle will spend the rest of his life in prison. Both he and her father have now overcome their disorders, and are devoting time to education.
Zuniga, on the other hand, fights to make changes.
She is currently the Statewide Organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of organizations seeking to reduce prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.
“I want to change policies created to keep my family inside as opposed to helping them,” Zuniga comments.
Critical Resistance against the Prison-Industrial Complex
Others are joining Zuniga’s charge. Gloria Galvez, a member of Critical Resistance in L.A., attests to the organization’s goal of abolishing the Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC) or promotion of the prison industry.
Critical Resistance, a national organization, advocates against the belief that prison makes society safer. Instead, it supports the idea that by providing basic necessities like food and shelter, communities and nations become more secure.
She believes abolishment of PIC would establish a “fundamental” change.
“Not only would the imprisonment, policing and surveillance of communities come to an end, but additionally the socioeconomic structures that condone this mass imprisonment of people would have to change,” Galvez comments. “This change would consist of reinvesting back into our communities.”
Galvez suggests a holistic approach to crime in America would better promote security than throwing people behind bars, even for offenses like murder, rape and drug trafficking.
“In all of these circumstances, we would of course seek accountability, but each of these situations would require a unique and complex ‘solution’ that would not only address crime, but the conditions that created the crime,” Galvez explains.
The reality of an American problem
The truth of the matter, mass incarceration and the discriminatory practices that guide it affect everyone in America, not only impoverished communities or people of color.
Even for the well off, which may feel apathetic towards the cause, there are consequences.
“All this happens through tax payer dollars,” Lyman observes. “The prison budget has grown exponentially in every state across the country. Even in the more conservative states, they’re doing criminal justice sentencing reforms for budgetary reasons, not because it’s a civil rights issue.”
Not only that, Lyman addresses the public safety contingency festered by a misguided criminal justice system.
“Everybody gets returned to the community,” she says. “It’s just delaying the problem, exacerbating the problem instead of giving them the help and support they might need…They have lifelong barriers for reentry, and so they are not going to be tax-paying citizens because it’s going to be impossible for them to get a job. They’re going to have to continue to a life of crime.”
The hurdles are great for the formerly incarcerated, especially if they no longer have families who assist them.
For Nunn, fortune fell in his favor following prison release, but he realizes he is a rarity. He knows reinvention because he mastered the art, and believes everyone deserves the same opportunity to absolve themselves of past transgressions.
“The most difficult people to tell hasn’t been the media, it hasn’t been me standing up in the court, it hasn’t been me appearing in front of the board, it’s been facing grandkids who see me as granddaddy,” he notes. “For 34 years, my focus remains the same: how do I bring justice and equality to people that were formerly incarcerated, and how do I fight for the full restoration of civil and human rights for people that are incarcerated.”