BLANK: The Other One Percent
Published: Thursday, February 9, 2012
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2012 00:02
The U.S. criminal justice system stands as a testament to social and racial injustice. With the world's highest incarceration rate, the United States accounts for nearly a quarter of the world's inmates, though it has only five percent of the world's population.
More than 2.3 million Americans are currently behind bars. That's almost one percent of the American population. Society has recently been rife with talk of the one percent — those who wield the greatest economic and political power. However, discussions about social inequality cannot be complete without recognizing the existence of the underprivileged class of Americans who languish in prisons across the country.
This segment of the population — the other one percent — represents the weakest and most disenfranchised members of our society.
Contrary to popular belief, the rise in America's incarceration rate has nothing to do with crime rates. While crime rose in the United States during the 1970s, this trend was consistent with crime trends in the rest of the world. Thus, America's high incarceration rate cannot be attributed to higher levels of crime in the United States. Moreover, crime in the United States has fallen since the 1990s, but the prison population has continued to grow.
The reason for this rise is the "war on drugs." Initiated in the 1970s, the "war on drugs" criminalizes a host of non violent offenses, such as marijuana possession, and grants law enforcement officers great discretion to search people and make arrests. The campaign instituted a policy known as "mandatory-minimum" sentencing, which requires judges to sentence defendants to a minimum amount of prison time, regardless of the circumstances of the case or the defendant's prior criminal record.
Drug offenses account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population since 1985, and more than half of the rise in state prison populations. The vast majority of people in prison on drug charges are there for non violent offenses.
Once they enter the criminal justice system, Americans encounter a system that dehumanizes and degrades them.
Due to the "war on drugs," American prisons have become overcrowded, forcing inmates to live in environments fraught with fear and violence. Violent and non-violent offenders are often kept together, leading to physical and sexual violence. Prison overcrowding has also led to the rise of violent gangs inside prison walls. These conditions serve only to harden inmates, making them more violent and leading to recidivism upon their release.
Moreover, the system of mass incarceration has spawned the creation of a powerful and entrenched prison-industrial complex that has metastasized throughout the United States. The prison-industrial complex consists of a powerful nexus of interests, ranging from prison guard unions, politicians and private prison companies who profit and benefit from an exploding prison population. This has created a system of perverse incentives, where these groups work together to keep the prison population high and hinder efforts to reform the system.
One of the most troubling aspects of the American criminal system is the huge disparity in the way it treats people of different races. Racism is manifested through laws that disproportionately target, charge and imprison blacks, such as the harsher penalties for crack cocaine (more commonly used by blacks) than for powder cocaine (more commonly used by whites), despite the fact that both are pharmaceutically equivalent.
Blacks constitute 12 percent of the American population, but account for nearly 50 percent of the prison population. The rate of blacks in prison now is 26 times the level it was in 1983, but for whites it is only eight times the 1983 number.
Many posit that blacks use drugs at higher rates than whites, but studies repeatedly demonstrate that people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates. Blacks constitute 74 percent of those sent to prison on drug-related offenses, yet they only comprise 13 percent of total drug users in America.
Civil rights activist and lawyer Michelle Alexander describes the American system of mass incarceration as "The New Jim Crow." Like the Jim Crow laws of the past, the American criminal justice system works to promulgate a racial caste system in the United States where blacks are disproportionately imprisoned and disenfranchised from society.
The American prison system represents a pervasive and systematic injustice in American society. It has given rise to the other one percent, the shadow underclass of Americans locked in the degrading conditions of prisons. Moreover, it has served to protect white privilege and continue the long history of racial persecution in the United States.
Sam Blank is a senior in the College. IMPERFECT UNION appears every other Friday.