By Dr. Clarence Lang, Chair, Department of African and African-American Studies & Dean's Professor of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Kansas
By "mass incarceration," we mean not only the explosion in the numbers of people in jails and prison, or on probation or parole, but also the broader framework of laws, rules and practices that limit the life chances of those labeled as "criminals," whether behind bars or not. Between 1970 and 2005, the U.S. prison population grew by 700%, outpacing the rate of the general population growth (44 percent) and crime rates. From 1987 to 2007, state spending on incarceration and related expenses exploded 127 percent, or $44 billion. During this same period, spending on higher education rose 21 percent.
Currently, the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, yet jails 25 percent of the world's prison population. Of this, 1 in every 36 Hispanic males 18 years old and older is incarcerated, while 1 in every 15 black males is behind bars; meanwhile, black women have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population. In contrast, 1 in every 106 males aged 18 years and older is incarcerated. It should be noted that Douglas County is not immune from this problem. In 2014, the Douglas County Jail Year End Statistical Report indicated that African Americans comprised 21% of the inmates in a county where only 4.6% were African American. Because mass incarceration disproportionately renders so many people of color invisible in household-based statistical data, it conceals the full extent of racial disparities in education, income, and other quality of life indicators. In this manner, mass incarceration effectively "disappears" social and racial inequalities. At the same time, it forecloses alternative methods of addressing crime, including restorative justice, drug treatment, counseling and psychological services, and educational and economic opportunity.
The growth of mass incarceration stems from a number of factors. First, stagnating wages, growing inequalities of wealth, and declining standards of living for the most economically vulnerable populations has occurred alongside a long-term retreat in U.S. public policy from the goals of social security and safety. In its place has emerged a "punitive turn" emphasizing punishment. This fed a heavily racialized "war on drugs" that transformed sentencing laws through harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, reoriented the thrust of law enforcement practices, and weakened Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures -- not to mention expanded the authority and prerogative of prosecutors. In its recent decision in Utah v. Strieff (2016), for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court held that police can detain an individual without cause as long they discover an outstanding warrant after the fact -- which then allows authorities to conduct and search and use any recovered evidence to prosecute.
The impact of mass incarceration has been devastating on racially and economically marginal communities. Convictions for nonviolent drug offenses have diminished employment and other economic opportunities for ex-felons, restricted voter eligibility, contributed to housing instability, strained extended family and kin networks, and exposed children to emotional and psychological trauma -- not to mention leaving many children to the tender mercies of state care. Because of its racially disproportionate effects, mass incarceration has stigmatized individuals, families and communities of color, as well as fed the modern criminalization of the black citizenry through racial profiling. One result has been the militarization of black community spaces through police sweeps, lockdowns, and increased surveillance. This has fostered a more general militarization of local police agencies, which have outfitted themselves more as occupying armies rather than public servants and protectors. Another outcome has been the consignment of many economically struggling people of color to a "fugitive" status as they live "on the run" from police scrutiny, while others have been victimized or killed by police officers under questionable circumstances. As both an outgrowth and engine of growing social inequality, mass incarceration threatens the overall stability and welfare of society while posing the danger of cruel and unusual punishment.