Written by Sureshi Jayawardene and Serie McDougal
The US criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails and military prisons, immigration detention centers, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the US territories. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander showed us how incarceration disproportionately affects Black communities, but also that the targeted imprisonment of Blacks in the US is the new and evolved de facto segregation. In her view, mass incarceration is a “massive system of racial and social control.” This system operates to control people, often beginning in the early stages of one’s life. It goes on to control all aspects of a person’s life after they are branded as a suspect in a crime. Data from Prison Policy Initiative supports this: although each year, 636,000 people leave prisons, people go to jail over 11 million times a year. This high level of “jail churn” is due to the fact that most people in jails have not been convicted – while some make bail, those who are poor remain locked up until their trial. Moreover, being locked up is only one part of this long process of “correctional control.” The stain of incarceration is a familiar and normalized part of life for many Black men, especially those living in impoverished urban spaces (Freeman, 1996). Its long-term impact on families and communities includes its limiting effects on earning potential and access to healthcare, education, and housing.
The multivalent picture of incarceration gains even more clarity with the findings of a recent study by researchers at Duke University and The New School. William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton, and Khaing Zaw examined the relationship between wealth and incarceration. As might be expected, they found that wealthier people of all races were less likely to be incarcerated than members of their racial group with less wealth. However, their study offers evidence that at all levels of wealth, African Americans are more likely than Whites to spend time in jail. Using the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), this study examined the links between wealth, race, and incarceration. The researchers looked at the data on race and wealth before and after incarceration.
When the NLSY79 wealth data was first collected in 1985, 426 respondents (3.67%) had been previously incarcerated (Zaw et al, 2016). Researchers organized incarceration experience into three categories: 1) incarceration in the next 5 years (future incarcerees); 2) incarceration only in the next 6-27 years (far future incarcerees); and 3) never incarcerated. Collective wealth was assessed for each subgroup at 25th percentile, 50th percentile, 75th percentile, and 90th percentile. White future incarcerees started out with more wealth in 1985 than their Black and Hispanic counterparts. The researchers noted that at all levels of wealth, White levels of wealth were “several multiples” of Blacks and Hispanics. Years after 1985, White far future incarcerees had more wealth at the median than Blacks who had never been incarcerated. Among future incarcerees, even though Blacks consistently had less wealth than Whites at the median level, Hispanics had more wealth than Whites at the median in several years, particularly after 1990 (Zaw et al, 2016). So, while wealth was unevenly distributed across incarceration status, wealth was unevenly distributed across race (Zaw et al, 2016).
The data show that the impact of race effects incarceration even when controlling for wealth. Considering the institutionalization of the role that race plays in incarceration, it is important to critically evaluate political approaches to addressing mass incarceration, especially during an election season. Targeting the poor with class based approaches to addressing mass incarceration through access to education and job growth initiatives are necessary but not sufficient given how pivotal race is to the problem. Political initiatives typically steer clear from openly addressing race or entertaining race specific\race targeted initiatives and thus begin the problem solving process by taking a central element off of the table. One of the things this study introduces is the reoccurring debate over taking class based on approaches to resolving social problems that are largely race based.
Freman, R.B. (1996). Why do so many young American men commit crimes and what might we do about it? The Journal of Economic Perspectives 10(1): 25-42.
Zaw, K., Hamilton, D., and Darity Jr., W. (2016). Race, wealth and incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Race and Social Problems 8(1): 103-115.
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