As this analysis of race and the prison population in the context of the wider body of important social research will discuss, not only are American prisons among the most populated in the world, they are disproportionately populated by minorities. This is certainly not an accident and, as it will be argued in more detail, is absolutely not because African American are more predisposed to crime.
The main cause is that the justice system in America is, by nature of its institutionalized policies that implicitly target the poor and minority groups (who are often in both categorizes due to other, larger social inequities) unfair and based upon biased sentencing practices. More generally, because of an unbalanced and, as many argue, unnecessary set of mandatory imprisonment policies for non-violent drug-related crimes, the population across racial groups remain high. To begin to correct this problem, drug sentencing issues need to be examined thoroughly, mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes need to be abolished, and treatment/rehabilitation efforts need to be favored over imprisonment as often as possible—assuming the crime is non-violent. If these three conditions for prison reform are met, the population currently in prison will be drastically reduced and more importantly, the minority prison population will dwindle.
This is because of the high numbers of African Americans and Latinos already in prison who are there only for non-violent drug offenses. As an African American himself, as well as a Democrat, Obama has clear objectives to address all three issues noted as critical for reform. Based on some of his public statements, he clearly recognizes the racist underpinnings of current drug laws in particular and aims to overturn them and create a new paradigm. However, it might be a fallacy to think that these are Obama’s aims just because he is black, just as it would be fallacy to think that because there is a black president in office for the first time in history, race issues are going to automatically be addressed. Despite our election of a black president by popular vote, this is not a “post-race” America by any means. While Obama has clear objectives in addressing the tied issues of race, poverty, and prisons, the system is far too ingrained from the bottom up for change provided one man. He offers great promise, but just because he is an African American will have little bearing on the issue outside of party-accepted changes he proposes.
Drug crimes seem to be at the center of the matter of high minority and poor inmates as current sentencing seems to be most racially motivated, however the problem of prisons being loaded to the maximum capacity is in itself worth addressing. Before beginning any discussion on the intersection of race, the prison system, and the future of this combination of historically opposed elements within a presidency led by a member of a minority population, it first best to address the striking statistical data to give appropriate weight to the issue. Currently, “there are 2.3 million prisoners in the United States today, almost one and a half times the number in China, whose population is four times greater. Our incarceration rate is six times the median of all nations, and we imprison people for a much wider range of offenses and for longer sentences. Of our prisoners, the vast majority are black and Latino.” (Williams, 2008, p. 9). Statistics about the racial composition of the prison population as well as about how large the population of American penal institutions is more generally abound, with the key ideas being that prisons reflect a society that still, despite the election of a black president and notable advances in civil rights, has major problems. Furthermore, statistics often note how Americans seem far fonder of imprisonment than most other nations with similar societies and economies. “One adult in every 100 is currently in prison…The annual budget for U.S. prisons come to $50 billion. The situation is particularly bad among young black males; about 11 percent of young black men are in prison” (Rees-Mog, 2008). Rees-Mog also notes, as do most other public policy resources, that most of the prison population has been jailed for drug offenses and non-violent crimes. A statement from a Washington Post reporter given to the House of Representatives states that, given the figures on high rates of Blacks and Latinos in the prison complex today, “Many of today’s crime control policies fundamentally impede the economic, political and social advancement of the most disadvantaged blacks and members of other minority groups. Prison leaves them less likely to find gainful employment, vote, participate in other civic activities and maintain ties with their families and communities” (Gottschalk, 2008, p. A15).
This racial dimension of the current incarcerated population is an important issue facing society, although one that has been mostly overlooked by previous presidents. Clinton had numerous complaints about the prison industrial complex and upon his election, had numerous ideas about how to reform and reduce the high numbers of inmates (regardless of race) but all in all, little was done and the problem continues. The problem itself is not merely that we have such prison population which is dramatically higher than other Western nations, the problem is that there seems to be an element of institutional racism that is related to sentencing and related issues, not that there is some determinism involved where blacks and Latinos are more profuse criminals. Obama has an avowed mission to address the high prison population and does seem to recognize that the problem is one of structural inequality. While his website does not cite racial issues as being involved, in numerous speeches, especially those given to the NAACP his feelings about black crime are expressed as anger, but certainly not at the black community itself. While he does note that black crime is a problem, he sees unequal and disparate sentencing guidelines that can be arbitrarily applied (thus open to the possibility of a race-based discretion of judges) as an equal, if not larger part of the problem (change.gov, 2008). Additionally, he advocates that drug crimes should not carry mandatory sentences of any kind and that it is due to such non-violent offenses that the prison population is so high. Without expressly stating that part of his motivation behind it is due to what he sees as a racial/structural inequality issue, this suggestion has been offered in speeches, although generally only those given to African-American audiences—most notably the NAACP.
In a nutshell, as explained on the website of the president elect (change.gov) Obama and Biden explain their positions on issues of prison reform future legislative measures rather broadly. While this issue is not given significant focus, most likely due to the economic crisis and the “pushing back” effect this has had on critical matters of social policy, they do see reform as an important goal in their administration. Their “three-pronged” approach to prison reform includes elements that are aimed at aiding ex-prisoners but more importantly at this point, at correcting some problems that are leading to prison overpopulation such as sentencing irregularities and the proposed use of special courts to handle drug-related crimes. Obama’s government policy position statement indicates that in terms of sentencing, “the disparity between sentencing crack and power-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated (change.gov, 2008) and furthermore that it would be most effective to provide “first-time, non-violent [drug] offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have been proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior” (change.gov, 2008). The third aspect of their stated prison policy is to provide various prisoner rehabilitation programs, which include a prison-to-work program—all with the end goal of preventing repeat offenses. His focus on rehabilitation and changes in sentencing guidelines seeks to change prisons from the bottom up and prevent new inmates from being added by providing them with more options once they are released.
One of the most important proposals Obama puts forth is through his suggestion of having special “drug courts” that only handle cases for non-violent drug offenders. This will help minimize problematic sentencing issues that plague criminal courts and might offer a more focused solution to equalizing the glaring racial issues present, especially in terms of the disparities between crack and cocaine—the same drug—which have dramatically different sentencing and are, as many suggest, inherently racist and classist in nature. Consider the fact that “Although statistics that African Americans account for only 12 percent of all illegal drug use, they make up for 44 percent of all drug arrests” and that furthermore, most of these are for crack, which has a much higher mandatory sentence, and marijuana, which many argue should be legalized as it is far less dangerous and addictive. Furthermore, according to a 2007 report by law.jrank.org, 2007, “In 1993, the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Justice Department concluded that blacks are jailed longer than whites for drug offenses. The bureau explained that ‘the main reasons that African Americans’ sentences were longer than whites’ … was that 83 percent of all federal offenders convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine in guideline cases were black, and the average sentence imposed for crack trafficking was twice as long as for trafficking in powdered cocaine” (2007). Some have made a compelling and well-supported argument that the tougher sentences for crack-cocaine versus its far more expensive and “glamorous” powdered counterpart is in itself racist. While Obama knows better than to clarify his policies expressly by making a controversial claim such as “black people use crack more than whites, thus my policy recommendation” this is exactly what seems to underlie this mission. There are multiple data sources that support the claim that blacks and other minority groups are more often arrested for crack cocaine (Mahan, 1994) and furthermore, since crack-cocaine is dramatically less expensive than crack, it is associated with poverty. In other words, prisons punish more heavily the use of the same drug by means of its price to buy, which thereby in itself discriminates against minorities and the poor. Through his policies, Obama is, on the outside just talking about matters of drug policy and its punitive measures, but really, he is recognizing the deep racist motivations that underlie such problems in American prisons. He sees how the poor and minorities (again, an often dual-categorized group in the context of a prison population) are victimized at a far greater rate than whites who commit drug offenses (as they can, in the case of cocaine, afford the powdered form, for instance) and seeks to correct the issue through these reforms.
Although the black community has reason to celebrate, as do all Americans who feel that personality and policy has triumphed over race with Obama’s recent election, several commentators from all backgrounds have noted that just because president elect Obama is a black president does not automatically mean, by proxy, that he will take specific care of racial issues as a top priority. In fact, one can expect that as his presidency wears on and the “honeymoon” many Obama supporters are still on is over, there will be some tough questions he face specifically on his lack of too-enthusiastic provisioning for black-only or racial issues. Even when he was first poised to become one of the few African Americans in the Senate, Obama faced tough words from black activist groups who felt that he was not doing enough for his own race’s advancement. One commentator from a small news outlet reported far before Obama was even a presidential candidate and had just won a seat in the senate that this presented “undeniable progress but it also worth noting that many of Obama’s policy positions do not mesh with the large majorities of the Black voting populace” (Armstrong 2004) and goes on to note in question form, “Is reflexively voting for someone who does not share your value system really progress?” (Armstrong, 2004). The an article from The Nation, Williams weighs the validity of the statements of whether we are living in a “post race” or “post civil rights” but in the face of mass inequity such as that which exists within our prison system, suggesting we’ve “transcended race” simply by our election of a black president is optimistic, perhaps even in a way that is harmful. The country must avoid thinking about Obama in terms of race and not expect him to make decisions based on his own racial alliances. The election of President-elect Obama is an unprecedented historical event, but it is occurring at a time of great economic unrest. It will be easy for Obama at the beginning of his presidency to avoid ruffling the many feathers his prison and drug-crime policy recommendations certainly will as he will be expected to focus on the pressing issues at hand. When he does bring up these issues, however, there will be great backlash as many, especially Conservatives, will see him as tolerating drug crime. It will be difficult for him to bring up in a public policy debate too that the reason why these issues are important and come out and say it is to even the playing field for drug crimes and help take down the high numbers of minorities in prisons.
All positive feelings aside about the progress made in terms of race in American through the election of a black president, just because he is an African American and poised to bring about great change, especially in the prison reform and drug sentencing context discussed here, he is up against a great force. America’s War on Drugs is serious and long-standing business and changing it by suggesting going what many will see as “easier” on those who deal and use drugs will put him up for a great deal of criticism—perhaps even within his own party. The war on drugs is in itself an American institution and changing its course will be a difficult, if not impossible task for only one presidential term. Obama has positive ideas about reducing prison populations, especially in their minority and class disparities, but it is a long, although much-needed path he will pave.
Armstong, W. (2004). Is this progress? New York Amsterdam News, 95(37), 8-8.
Gottschalk, Michelle (2008, April). Two separate societies: one in prison, one not. Retrieved December 9, 2008, from Washington Post Web site: http://www.house.gov/scott/pdf/wapo_twosepsoc_080415.pdf.
Mahan, Sue. 1996. Crack Cocaine, Crime, and Women: Legal, Social, and Treatment Issues. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Rees-Mog, William (2008, March 3). Can Obama break their prison bars? : a symbol of hope for young blacks. The Times U.K., Retrieved December 8. 2008, from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/william_rees_mogg/article3471216.ece.
Obama, Barak (2008, November 30). The Office of the President Elect. Retrieved December 9, 2008, from Civil Rights Agenda: Plans to Strengthen Civil Rights Web site: http://change.gov/agenda/civil_rights_agenda/
Williams, P. J. (2008). Let Them Eat Waffles. Nation, 286(19), 9-9.