Why Are So Many Black People in Jail?

Question: Is the incarceration crisis the civil rights struggle of the 21st century?

Ben Jealous: I would say things a bit differently.  Quality schools, making sure that each child has access to a quality education is the civil rights struggle of this century, but the catch is we don't get there unless we solve the incarceration crisis in this society.  We literally won't have the funds to do it and will continue to break up far too many families to be able to believe that all children here are really going to start off with the foundation that they need.  And that's – I think we are accustomed in our society to thinking that you can go after one issue all by itself.  And when it comes to schools and incarceration, you just got to start off recognizing that in the poorest communities, and in the state budget, they are absolutely connected. 

If we want to get the incarceration issue under control in this country, we have got to make sure that we use incarceration as a last resort, not a first resort.  So, that means more shifts like we saw in New York State last year saying, okay, what do we really want to get out of having the court coming into contact with a low-level drug addict?  We want them to get off drugs.  So, let's send them towards rehab, not towards prison.  Because if we send them towards prison, they'll come back in a few years, they're going to be angry, they're going to be more desperate, and they're going to be more dangerous.  And that's not what society wants to get out of this equation.  Right?  And it'll cost us twice as much money. 

Similarly, we need to just really revamp -- and one of the things we are pushing in Congress right now is a bill by Senator Jim Webb that would force the country to take a look at its justice system from soup to nuts.  For the last 40 years, we've been pushing this notion in this country that the best thing we can do when it comes to crime is to be tough.  And in a country as intelligent as ours, we should always know that when somebody says the best thing you can do is be tough, the best thing you can do is use your brute force, then we're selling ourselves short. 

The best thing we can do is be smart.  And when you're smart on crime, what you see is, you shift from how do we punish these people as much as possible to how do we bring down crime as quickly as possible in a way that's sustainable.  And what that drives you towards are alternatives to incarceration, what it drives you towards is using probation and parole in ways that are much more intelligent where you're going to ratchet it up for people who are more violent and you ratchet it down for people who are less violent.  And what it drives you towards is really focusing on re-entry, and how do you get somebody from prison into the workplace into their community in a way that sets them up for staying out of prison.  

In the California prisons right now, 67% of the people are there have recidivated, have been there before.  And we spent all this money on keeping them in prison and then very, very little on actually setting them up for success.

Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

How the American justice system turns petty (and mostly black) criminals angry, desperate, and dangerous.

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