Do You Really Know Who's Behind Bars?

There's been a dramatic shift in the racial makeup of America's prison inmates, especially female inmates. To find out why, host Michel Martin talks with Sentencing Project Executive Director Marc Mauer, and author Patrice Gaines, who has worked with women in prison for more than 20 years. They say changes in drug crime enforcement, sentencing laws, and the economic downturn all played a role.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, our BackTalk segment, something a little special. We hear from you and, just in time for March Madness, a word or two from Duke legend Christian Laettner. So stay tuned for that. That's ahead. But first we want to turn to a story about crime and justice, and if you are interested in this subject, you've probably heard activists decry that more than two million people are imprisoned here in the U.S.

That's the largest system in the world. And also the fact that for decades, if not longer, African-Americans have been over-represented among the nation's prison population. Now a recent study from the Sentencing Project - a non-profit research and advocacy group - shows that the incarceration rate among African-Americans has dropped dramatically in the last decade, particularly for women.

We want to hear more about this, so we're joined now by Marc Mauer. He is the executive director of the Sentencing Project. Also with us for additional perspective is Patrice Gaines. She's a veteran journalist and the author of "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, A Journey from Prison to Power." She's also worked with women in prison for more than 20 years. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARC MAUER. SENTENCING PROJECT: Great to be here.

PATRICE GAINES: Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: Marc, tell us a little bit about the shift we are seeing first, and then we'll talk about why.

PROJECT: Sure. What we saw in the first decade of the 21st century is a dramatic decline in the number of African-American women in particular, and conversely a rise in the number of white women in particular in the prison system. For African-American women, their rate of incarceration went down by 30 percent. White women's rates increased by 47 percent and Latinas went up by about 23 percent.

And we don't normally see such dramatic changes in a relatively short period of time like this.

MARTIN: There's also been, according to the report, a 9.8 percent decrease for black men and an 8.5 percent increase for white men. Now, what accounts for this? I understand that incarceration for drug crimes is central to the shift. Tell us more about that.

PROJECT: Well, I think the story for African-Americans and whites is probably two different stories. For African-Americans, it appears that it's virtually all about the drug war, I think. You know, just as the drug war had disproportionately resulted in incarcerating African-Americans for 25 years, now as the drug war is being scaled back somewhat in at least certain states, African-Americans are disproportionately benefiting from some of those reductions.

In New York State, for example, we saw a reduction of the women's prison population significantly during the decade. The entire reduction came from decline in drug offenses, and of that 99 percent of the reduction were African-American and Hispanic women.

MARTIN: And this is something that maybe, Patrice, you want to pick up on. Isn't it in part due to the fact that the police are paying more attention to prescription drug crimes and that tends to involve a different population of people? More white people, for example?

GAINES: Well, I do believe that we find crime where we look for it quite often and that some of this has to do with that. And some of it has to do with the fact that we talked about racial profiling, you know, over the last decade. And so police are more conscious of being fairer. I like to think that that's part of the results also, but I think it is a very complex report.

MARTIN: Do you think this is cause to celebrate or not, Patrice? I understand you have some ambivalence about this.

GAINES: Well, yeah. And I would imagine that Marc does also. You know, one of the things that I don't want to see is if there's any increase in any population, I don't want it to be because we're taking the same philosophy that we used in locking up African-Americans and now we've just shifted that over and we're going to lock up people who abuse other types of drugs.

I have a concern that we think from this report then that African-Americans are no longer being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate and I certainly know that that's not what Marc's intention is. But sometimes, you know, we will take good news to say, oh, OK.

MARTIN: So it's still disproportionate, just not as severe as it has been. If you're just joining us, we're talking about a dramatic shift in the racial makeup of incarcerated Americans. We're joined by Patrice Gaines. She's a veteran journalist who's worked with women who've been in prison. And also with us Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project.

Now, Marc, why don't you talk about that? Is this a cause for celebration or not?

PROJECT: Right. Well, I would certainly agree with Patrice's perspectives on this. You know, the one note of optimism that I take from this report is that many people in recent decades have viewed racial disparities in the justice system as almost an intractable problem. And I think what this shows us - and we need to uncover more about what's going on - is that we have seen that progress is being made, at least as far as it concerns incarceration of African-Americans.

And we have a long way to go but I would note as well that, you know, even as we've seen some of these reductions in incarceration, there's been no adverse effects on public safety. You know, states that are beginning to reduce their prison population are not experiencing spikes in crime or anything like that.

MARTIN: Marc, just to clarify for people who are not familiar with your work, is it your philosophical perspective that incarceration on its face is bad for society?

PROJECT: Sure. A certain rate of incarceration we see around the world, and there are some people who present such a threat to the community, they need to be isolated for some period of time. What we've seen develop in the United States in the last four decades, what's called mass incarceration, where we have the largest prison system in the world, I think we're well past the point of diminishing returns in terms of affect on public safety and the ripple effects, the impact on low income communities of color, for families, for children growing up in those communities, is increasingly severe. So I think the harmful consequences of incarceration on this scale are very problematic.

GAINES: Yeah, I'd like to add to that also, that this price is being paid really by everybody, not just those people, you know, who are incarcerated or from those communities where there's a high incidence of incarceration. But those of us who are taxpayers, it's really costing us.

And also, we can't put a price on the potential that is lost or what might happen to our society if in fact we have programs to help people who re-enter into the community, you know, so that they don't recommit crimes and return.

MARTIN: I wanted to pick up on one more thing that you talked about in the report. Marc, you suggest in the report that the economic downturn could be a major factor in the changing incarceration, particularly for white women. You suggested the life prospects of white women at the lower ends of the economic scale - i.e., high school dropouts - seem to have worsened significantly in the last decade.

And that's kind of interesting, because all the data suggests the economic downturn has hit African-Americans hardest of any group.

PROJECT: Right.

MARTIN: So why would it be that the incarceration rates for black women are going down while they're going up for white women if the economy is a factor?

PROJECT: We don't know the full extent of what's going on. One sort of ironic explanation could be that because African-Americans have disproportionately suffered from disadvantage, there may be more of an informal safety net in the community, whether it comes from the church or community groups. For white women at the bottom of the ladder maybe those structures are not in place. Maybe they're more dispersed.

And so as they get hit by the economic decline, there's less to fall back on and those same risk factors may lead to greater involvement in crime as well.

MARTIN: Patrice, what do you think about that?

GAINES: One, I think it's worth noting too that when we talk about mass incarceration, generally we're talking about poor people. And so, you know, it to me shows us again the impact that poverty can have on a person's life. And the other thing is that, as Marc mentioned earlier, this is something that is different, I'm sure, for each state, each locality.

Because I know that in Charlotte we're not really seeing a higher incidence of incarceration among white women. Now, I have seen it among Hispanic women, but our population here of Hispanic people is growing and I have seen that. I also see more incidence of mentally ill people in prison. I used to not see that as often. So I see that.

And we are experiencing more violent crimes among the younger population. But we just don't see that higher rate of incidence of incarceration among white women.

MARTIN: Marc, could you pick up the thread on what - the trends in the incarceration of Latinos? Could you pick up on that? Just briefly, if you would.

PROJECT: Yeah. Especially for women it's gone up substantially. Less so for men. You know, it's a harder target to try to identify what's going on. Partly because of the rapid pace of change, the numbers of Latinos in the population. Partly, you know, the data is just much weaker. You know, states have been pretty lax in figuring out how to identify Latinos. And so it's harder to figure out what the dynamics are.

But clearly, you know, with the growing number we need to pay a lot of attention to that as well.

MARTIN: Patrice, can I ask you for a final thought drawing on your experience? I don't know that everybody remembers that your story is that you were yourself incarcerated as a young woman, became an accomplished and distinguished journalist.

GAINES: Sure.

MARTIN: Is there a final thought that you would like people to be thinking about based on your experience when they hear us talking about these trends?

GAINES: Well, yes. For one, there are other ways to handle crime. And it's being done in other countries and it's being done in places in this country successfully. And I'm talking about restorative justice programs in crimes such as drug crimes. But the other thing, I think, that really points to what's wrong with our society and with how we handle crime is I'm 63 years old and two years ago I was dismissed from a job with the Census Bureau because of my criminal record. My criminal record was when I was 21 years old. And I could list a whole line of different awards and accomplishments. But it didn't matter on paper to the society that I had those. I can say I was dismissed from the job. I was eventually called back, but at that time the harm had been done. But I was angry really for those people who would not even get that chance to have those accomplishments. We have to find a better way. We can't hold people accountable for year after year after year; we have to allow them to become citizens who can give back to their communities.

MARTIN: Patrice Gaines is a veteran journalist. She's worked with women in prison for more than 20 years, and she joined us from Charlotte, North Carolina. Also with us, Marc Mauer, he is the executive director of the Sentencing Project. He spoke with us from Little Rock, Arkansas.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

PROJECT: Thanks for having us.

GAINES: Thank you.

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