We’re all aware of the well-documented and much-analyzed disproportionately high incarceration rate of minorities. Researchers and pundits have asserted that these high incarceration rates are due to a variety of causes including lack of education, low incomes, and lack of fathers in the household. While these factors, of course, tend to influence the likelihood of criminality, I think there are two key pieces of the narrative that have been ignored.
First, few have looked at the opportunities, or lack thereof, provided to low-level criminals that lead to recidivism. Currently, nearly half of incarceration individuals will be re-arrested within three years of their release date, normally for property crimes including theft, larceny, possessing stolen property, or selling illegal weapons. Why are these rates so high and what have we done as a society to curb this outcome?
Overall, not much. After a prisoner’s release, a job, income, and steady place to live can be hard to come by. Research by the Urban Institute shows that less than half of released prisoners find and maintain employment within one year after release, more than two thirds of those jobs being low-skilled and low-paying. Additionally nearly two-thirds of recently released prisoners lack a steady home and report moving to more than one location within one year of re-entry. With all these challenges, it is no surprise that recidivism is so common.
We also must consider the skew of incarceration rates due to the fact that we, as a society, tend not to prosecute “white-collar” crimes or “white-collar” criminals.
Prosecution of white-collar crimes has been steadily decreasing since the U.S. declared war drugs. In fact, only 1,251 cases of financial fraud were filed in 2011, despite widely known corruption and mismanagement of some of the world’s largest financial institutions. Meanwhile, millions of low-level criminals, drug users, and third-strikers are being imprisoned, swelling the prison population from 500,000 in the 1980’s to more than 2.3 million today.
Even when prosecuted, these “white collar” criminals often face little to no jail time because of their ability to hire expensive lawyers. Minorities are 20% more likely to face jail time when charges with the same offenses as white counterparts.
Including these two factors into the narrative can reshape discussions on minority incarceration rates. Rather than placing full blame on the individual, some must be placed on the system that disproportionately prosecutes minorities and traps them in a cycle of criminality. Doing so may just discourage the demonization of these people and allow the system to treat all in a just and humane way.
by Jenna Engebretson