Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Dissection of the Prison Population

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world…by a landslide. No other country even comes close to incarcerating as many of its citizens as us. In the past thirty years, the American prison population has increased by about 500%, from 300,000 in the 1980s to over 2.2 million now. It is no wonder that prisons are severely overcrowded, and if the cast of the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” is any indication, a sizable amount of those in prison are Latino.

Data on incarcerated Latinos is hard to find due to ambiguous record keeping, as Hispanic is characterized as an ethnicity rather than a race and the federal government's data source for national crime statistics does not keep data on ethnicity. However, as per the SentencingProject, an organization that promotes reform in sentencing policies, it has been estimated that as of 2012, Latinos are four times as likely as Caucasians to end up in prison. One out of every three people in Federal prisons is of Latino descent. The numbers for state prisons are just as alarming. Data records show that even though White Americans make up 78 percent of the U.S. population, they only account for 35 percent of the state prison population, while Hispanics, who make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, account for 21 percent of those in state prisons.

This overwhelming number of incarcerations continues to increase even though overall crime in America is at a steady decline. The United States crime rate saw its peak in the 1990s. Since then, violent crimes, such as homicides, rapes and robberies, have dropped by an average of 48% nationwide. This increased number of incarcerations but decreased number in crime can be largely attributed to escalated policing and harsh sentencing, practices, which many believe target African Americans and Latinos.

This allegation may not be too far fetched. It seems as if there is a new case of law enforcement using deadly force against men of color who pose minimal threat almost weekly. In Baltimore, for example, the city has seen weeks of unrest due to the death of a 25-year-old man at the hands of police. Since the number of Latinos that reside in that city has almost doubled in the past 10 years, it is no surprise that many Latinos stand in solidarity with Black Americans regarding this issue. Gustavo Torres, executive Director of Casa de Maryland, a Latino and immigration advocacy organization, told MSNBC that Latinos in Maryland are also concerned with the hostile relationships between law enforcement and minorities. This volatile relationship is perhaps most obvious when examining drug-specific arrests.

Drug related offenses have increased by an astounding 1100% since the 1980s. To the extent that those currently incarcerated for drug related crimes amount to more than those incarcerated for all offenses in 1980. Even though government records show that White Americans use and sell drugs at a higher rate, more than 80% of those arrested for drug offenses (primarily marijuana possession) are Black and/or Latino.

This stark comparison is not surprising, considering that research also shows that Black and Latinos are stopped and frisked three times more often than White Americans. A recent study conducted by Christopher Petrella at the University of California Berkeley, found that not only are people of color more likely to be arrested, but they are also more likely to serve time in private prisons. Private prisons became popular in 1984, when as a response to the massive costs associated with the overpopulation of federal and state prisons, a group of Tennessee investors created an organization called Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The CCA uses private investment or venture capital to build and run their own prisons then make profit off of them by leasing the beds to the state. Currently, nearly ten percent of American prisons fall under the private prison jurisdiction. Prisons, which compared to their public counterparts, have a higher level of violence and corruption and a lower level of health care services and educational programs.

However even though Latinos are incarcerated for minor drug offenses at a disparate rate, most Hispanic prison sentences come as a result of immigration crimes, particularly illegal crossing and alien smuggling. As per the Pew Research Center, among all Hispanics sentenced in federal courts since 2007, 48% were sentenced for immigration offenses, 37% for drug offenses and 15% for other offenses. What’s perhaps more interesting to note is that immigration crimes, unlike most other criminal offenses, fall under the jurisdiction of federal prisons rather than state or local courts, therefore they are always tried as Federal offenses. The average sentence for immigration crimes is currently two years.

The overcrowding of prisons, particularly by people of color and particularly for non-violent crimes, has become such a problem that many politicians are beginning to take note. In reaction to current events, 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently proposed an end to mass incarceration, calling for a re-evaluation of prison sentences and trust between police and communities. New Attorney General, Loretta Lynch’s stance however is still pretty much undefined. Yet the numbers are hard to ignore. The United States is only 5% of the World’s population, but 25% of its prison system, a system that costs us upwards of $80 billion a year. It’s clearer now more than ever that our criminal justice system needs some serious reform.

Originally Published in LatinTrends Magazine, June 2015

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