Black Men's Jail Time Hits Entire Communities

Guests

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, correspondent, NPR
Charles Blow, columnist, New York Times
Dwayne Betts, spokesperson, Campaign For Youth Justice
Michelle Alexander, author, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness

Almost 10 percent of young African American men are behind bars. Many legal scholars argue that the prison system locks those men out of civic life long after time served — and that the social fabric of all American communities suffers as a result.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

President Obama recently signed a bill that reduces minimum sentences for crack cocaine violations in an attempt to reduce the disparity between time served for crack and powder cocaine, two forms of the same drug that have deep racial implications.

In New York and California, state data analyses suggest blacks are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana violations than whites, and census data show a stark reality: African-Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population - and about 44 percent of America's prison inmates.

Last week on Martha's Vineyard, Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute took up the issue of disproportionate incarceration among African-American men, which some have called an epidemic in America. The event, hosted by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, brings together some of the nation's foremost thinkers.

Gates said he hoped the discussion would raise the consciousness of well-educated people about a horrible injustice that is occurring to black men.

This hour, we'll talk about black male incarceration, and we want to hear from you. What is the impact of black male incarceration in your life? How does it affect your community? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

First, we have with us some of the panelists from last week's lecture series titled "Locked Out, Locked Up: Black Men in America." One of them is Charles Blow. He's an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, and he writes the blog "By the Numbers" for the New York Times website.

Also joining us, in just a moment, is Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR special correspondent in Africa and also, the moderator of the panel. She selected the topic. But let's go to you, Charles Blow. You let the story be told by the numbers. What do they say?

Mr. CHARLES BLOW (Columnist, New York Times): Well, I mean, they're it's a broad thing. It's not necessarily just about incarceration. First, if you look at incarceration, one in nine black men are behind bars.

But if you look at the growth in people being introduced into the system, that's not necessarily people who are permanently behind bars, but they have an arrest on their record.

That means a lot, and that is happening far more frequently. For instance, in New York state - no, New York City, in 2008, 40,000 young, mostly young men, they were 90 percent of them men people were arrested for marijuana possession.

So that person doesn't necessarily stay incarcerated, but they are now deemed a criminal, and that has a - you know, far-reaching implications for that person and their future.

SEABROOK: Talk about the differences between these arrests among black people and among white people, and the differences of marijuana usage between those two groups.

Mr. BLOW: Right. So, what you would the first think you think is, you think that black people are using more marijuana, which is actually not the case. In every major survey of marijuana usage, white young, white people say that they use marijuana more than blacks.

However, the rate of arrest is - for marijuana use, is like you said before, like seven times higher for young, black people than it is for whites. And you have to then say, well, why? How could that be?

And the issue is that, it's the part of the stop-and-frisk program in New York City, which stops and frisks a whopping 500,000 people a year. And 90 percent of the people never get charged with anything. They did nothing wrong: They happened to be walking while black or brown.

SEABROOK: Do you have tell us where this program came from - it's relatively new what it allows.

Mr. BLOW: Well, I mean, it's part of, you know, the push among in the New York City Police Department to crack down on crime, and it's kind of the philosophy that if you crack down on the small crimes, you will catch the big criminals or people who may commit a crime later.

It also gets people into the system. So every time you make one of these small arrests, that person gets fingerprinted; they get a mug shot; they get, you know, the whole thing. So you have a record of this person in case they do something later.

But you know, the problem with that is that it's like throwing out the whole melon because you don't like the seeds. You're stigmatizing vast swaths of this population in order to catch a few criminals or would-be criminals - or people who may become criminals in the future.

And in fact, the program itself, by putting people in contact with real, violent criminals, in some some researchers say that creates criminals.

SEABROOK: It allows law enforcement to stop anyone and frisk them? Or what's the criteria?

Mr. BLOW: Well, I mean, you know, it's if they're it's subjective. If they're behaving suspiciously, whatever. I don't know what that means.

SEABROOK: I see.

Mr. BLOW: But it's very subjective criteria and basically, it means that they can stop and frisk anyone they want.

SEABROOK: So what was the big picture of what you told the conference on Martha's Vineyard, at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute last week?

Mr. BLOW: Well, I mean, I just - it was this, what I just spoke about, which is that there's a disproportionate number of young black and Hispanics being stopped and arrested for this marijuana usage. And that has real implications for them later on.

For instance, Bill Clinton signed a law when he was in office that said that you could not get any financial aid if you have ever been arrested for drug -on a drug charge. That means that all those kids can't go to college. And...

SEABROOK: So the stop-and-frisk program, for example, is just one of the engines.

Mr. BLOW: Right. It is one of the major engines for pushing people into the system.

SEABROOK: Okay. Let's turn now to NPR special correspondent in Africa Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Charlayne, you were the moderator of this discussion, and tell us why you chose this topic.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, every year, the Du Bois Institute and Skip Gates - Henry Louis Gates - organize this panel discussion at the Whaling Church, and we try to build on a conversation about race. It's still much-needed in this country.

We discussed, last year, race in the era of Obama, and this was a specific that just kept coming up. I talked to Bill Cosby. I talked to Harry Belafonte. I talked to Melissa Harris-Lacewell, one of the participants in another panel and an academic who studies the issue. And everybody I talked to pretty much reflected what human rights has pointed out, that having a disproportionate number of black men in prison actually saps the strength of the nation as a whole.

So I thought that this would be a good way to continue to drill down on this much-needed conversation about race in this country.

SEABROOK: Can you be more specific about, saps our country as a whole - in what way?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, first of all, most of the black men are in prison. So what's happening to the black women who need husbands? I mean, that's one way to look at it.

But the other way to look at it is the potential for so many of these people. One of the panelists was a young man named Dwayne Betts. You've had him on NPR several times now. He was arrested when he was 16 years old for hijacking a car.

This kid was an honor student, and since he went to once he went to prison, he continued to study, he continued to read. And now that he's out of prison, having served something like nine years, he's teaching. He's a poet. He's a writer. He's teaching other young people literature and hoping to keep them out of the criminal justice system, out of the path of, you know, temptation.

But you can see when you talk to him - there's another young man who was singing here with Ben Taylor's band, and he was in the same boat. And now he's out. And Carly Simon had lobbied for years to get him out of prison, and he has amazing potential.

So you're losing the academic potential. You're losing the cultural potential, and you're losing a really vital element of the society. When the majority of your young, black men are in prison, what I mean, do you have to ask the question?

SEABROOK: In fact, Dwayne Betts will be joining us in just a moment. Let me ask you, Charles Blow: We have all of this data now that show that black men are get arrested more often for the same kinds of crimes, especially non-violent drug crimes. Do we have any data that show they also get harsher sentences overall than other kinds of Americans?

Mr. BLOW: Right. There was a study I came across maybe six months ago, and basically what it said was that - is actually what you were saying, that blacks get harsher sentences than whites for the exact, same crime, even if the judge is black. It doesn't even matter. They will always get a harsher sentence.

And I want to clear up one thing about New York state and New York City and marijuana arrests. Having a small amount of marijuana is not even a crime in New York state. It is a civil violation. But showing it, or smoking in public, is a crime. And what a lot of officers do is they ask these kids, do you have it on you? If you have something on you, you should take it out; show me because if you don't, and I frisk you and I find it, it's going to be worse.

The kid takes it out; all of a sudden, he has moved from a violation to a misdemeanor.

SEABROOK: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, do you think Americans in general know about this problem? And what do you hope this conference will accomplish?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, actually, it's a panel discussion that goes on yearly. It's not really a conference. But just judging from the reaction, we had quite an audience. The thing was sold out for weeks in advance. And it's interracial, intergenerational. It's professionals; it's non-professionals. And I have never had reaction to any of our panels - and we've always had good reaction - but never like this.

People are saying they did not know this. And one of the arguments that was put forward on the panel is that, you know, black people in particular come up in a particular raise their children in a particular kind of way. And one of the things they stress is staying out of trouble.

I have just finished a book on the civil rights movement for young readers, and looking at John Lewis' background, he talked about how, you know, when the civil rights activists started going to jail, it was such a traumatic thing because even though they were going for the right reasons, their parents just didn't understand because jail was an absolute no-no for black children.

So the whole issue of all of these black men in prison has to be deconstructed in such a way that you get people A, aware of it and B, get rid of the some of the stigma and C, tell some of the stories that you're hearing, and the statistics that you're hearing from people like Charles Blow.

SEABROOK: Thank you, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and thanks to you, Charles Blow. After the break, we'll talk more with two other participants in the event. You can join our conversation. Give us a call. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Two years ago, the U.S. hit a milestone in its prisons. More than one in 100 American adults was behind bars. The numbers from the Pew Center on the States went deeper, and looked at differences among races. One in 15 black adults was in prison. One in nine young, black men - between the ages of 20 and 34 - were behind bars.

Today, we're talking about why that's the case, and what the effect may be. And we want to hear from you. What is the impact of black, male incarceration in your life? How does it affect your community? Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm joined now by Dwayne Betts. He's an advocate for juvenile justice and prison reform, and he's been there himself. When he was 16, he pleaded guilty to carjacking and was sentenced to nine years in prison. While there, he became a poet, an advocate and an educator.

Last year, he published his story in the book "A Question of Freedom." Today, he's the national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, and he's here in Studio 3A with us. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DWAYNE BETTS (Author, "A Question of Freedom"): Thank you.

SEABROOK: It's good to have you here. One more guest will be joining us shortly, but let me start with you. You're one of those numbers that Charles Blow described. Tell us what happened.

Mr. BETTS: Well, I mean, for me, I was guilty, and I guess it's hard for me talk about it just because I have to start the question by saying I have to start the answer by saying: When I was 16 years old, I was an honor student. I hadn't been in trouble before. I never held a pistol, and I went out into a parking lot on a Saturday night, and I carjacked a man.

And I got arrested the next day and pled guilty, and I was sentenced to nine years in prison. And I served eight and a half years.

SEABROOK: Eight and a half years. And how old are you now?

Mr. BETTS: I'm 29.

SEABROOK: Twenty-nine. So how old were you when you got out?

Mr. BETTS: Twenty-four.

SEABROOK: What does this do to your life, when you go to prison?

Mr. BETTS: Well, I think it's complicated because depending on who you are -when I went to prison, I became aware of the disproportionate number of black men in prison. And I became aware of how many of us had got ourselves in prison; by how many of us, at some level in the system, been railroaded or been treated differently than somebody who may have been white or of a different race.

And so I think what it did to me was, it forced me to look at my life - and look at the decisions that I made, and the poor decisions that I made. And I recognized that I not only had to do something better for myself but sort of try to make the public aware of the situation that they put people in, especially now that you have more and more young people being sent to prison with adults -because I was 5' 6,'' 125 pounds, and the judge told me: I'm under no illusion that sending you to prison will help.

So it was one of those situations in which I knew I had to do the time because I made a mistake, but I also knew that I was put in a situation where I was likely not to survive.

SEABROOK: Were you tried as an adult?

Mr. BETTS: Yes, I was tried as an adult.

SEABROOK: And sentenced as an adult.

Mr. BETTS: Yes.

SEABROOK: And what do you think re-entering, people re-entering society after doing these terms, what does this do to them, having been in prison?

Mr. BETTS: Well, it does, you know, a lot of things, from you can't live in certain communities; certain colleges and universities won't allow you to attend their schools because you have a felony; certain employers won't hire you because you have a felony.

And the thing is - and this is what I found in my own life - once you prove yourself, once you show that you have some kind of intelligence and some kind of skill to offer, people often make exceptions for you. But the problem is, it's hard to get that space.

I was given a job as an assistant manager at a bookstore, Karibu Books in Bowie, Maryland, and then I was eventually the manager. And that was my opportunity to prove myself.

And from there, I was able to do a lot of amazing things, and I was able to get a full-tuition scholarship to Prince George's Community College. And from there, I was able to get a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Maryland. But even along the way, there were a lot of employers and a lot of places that wouldn't give me the opportunity to prove myself.

SEABROOK: Let's turn now to Michelle Alexander. She's an associate professor at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Her book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." She provided the thesis for the lecture series, and Michelle Alexander joins us from a studio at Ohio State University. Welcome to the program.

Professor MICHELLE ALEXANDER (Associate Professor, Moritz College of Law; Author, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness"): Thank you for having me.

SEABROOK: You've written about this, and you say that incarceration of African-American men is happening on such a scale that a caste system comparable to Jim Crow is created by it. Explain what you mean.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Yes, I believe the mass incarceration of poor people of color in the United States is akin to a new caste system, one that appears from a distance to be colorblind, but operates nearly as effectively at locking people of color in a permanent, second-class status as earlier racial caste systems, including Jim Crow.

You know, with the election of Barack Obama now, it's widely believed that we as a nation have finally triumphed over race. But the reality is quite different.

In some major American cities, the majority of African-American men are locked behind bars or labeled felons for life. And once you're labeled a felon, you're trapped. You're trapped at a permanent, second-class status in which you may be denied the right to vote; automatically excluded from juries; legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.

So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind are suddenly legal again once you've been branded a felon.

And the popular, supposedly colorblind justification for the mass incarceration of people of color holds no water: crime rates. As I describe in some detail in my book, crime rates do not even begin to explain the astounding and rapid increase in imprisonment in African-American communities.

Over the past few decades, crime rates have, you know, risen and fallen, fluctuated over the past few decades, but incarceration rates have consistently soared.

Criminologists and sociologists today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates have moved independently of each other. Our prison population has quintupled - not doubled or tripled, but quintupled - for reasons that have relatively little to do with crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics.

SEABROOK: So you couple...

Prof. ALEXANDER: We've managed to rebirth racial pasts.

SEABROOK: So it sounds like what you're saying is that - you couple what Charles Blow was talking about in our last segment, the fact that the same crimes get a longer sentence for black men, especially young, black men, or they get a sentence at all, they get arrested in the first place - the young, black men. Couple that with the joblessness that happens after they get out, the loss of voting rights that occurs, and your argument is that you end up with this caste system.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Absolutely. You know, our the prison explosion in the United States has been driven by convictions for relatively minor, frequently non-violent drug offenses, not serious crimes.

Drug offenses alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state population, between 1985 and 2000. And you know, virtually all of the studies that have been done regarding both drug use and drug sales have shown that, you know, contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.

But the drug war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, resulting in generations of people of color, young people of color, being swept in to high-tech prisons from their underfunded, decrepit schools -swept in to these high-tech prisons and then released into a permanent undercaste in which they are locked out of jobs, locked out of housing and public benefits.

Many people don't realize the extraordinary difficulties people face, released from prison. You know, virtually every job application has that box you have to check, asking if you've ever been convicted of a felony. And it doesn't matter if that felony happened three weeks ago or 30 years ago. For the rest of your life, you're forced to check that box.

You're barred by law from public housing for a minimum of five years once you've been released from prison. And you know, federal regulations actually encourage public housing agencies to exclude people who have criminal records, for the rest of their lives.

Even food stamps are off-limits to people who have drug felonies - you know, pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS, denied even food stamps no matter how poor or sick they may be.

What do we expect these folks to do? It's no surprise that about 70 percent of people released from prison return within three years. And the majority of those who return do so in a matter of months, because the challenges associated with mere survival once you've been released from prison, in a legal economy in the mainstream society, are so immense.

SEABROOK: Okay, Michelle Alexander, hang on for a second, Dwayne Betts. I want to get to some phone calls here and some emails we have coming in. Let's take Rocko(ph) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He wrote this: Is it possible that the numbers actually reflect the percentage of crimes committed by blacks compared to whites? Maybe they actually commit more crimes. Would you dare discuss this possibility?

It's something that comes up often when this discussion is taken. Dwayne Betts, tell me what you think.

Mr. BETTS: Yeah, I know, but if Rocko's listening now, he just heard all of the numbers that Michelle said that basically disputed that claim. And I think the studies - we don't need another study to dispute that. It's clear that that's just not the case.

SEABROOK: Michelle?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Yes, that's absolutely right. You know, most people assume that, you know, the prison explosion has been driven by violent crime rates. And it is true that African-American men do have higher rates of violent crime than white men.

William Julius Wilson explored this in his book "When Work Disappears." He shows that, you know, people who are jobless have higher rates of violent crime, and in fact he cited research which shows that, you know, if you compare white, jobless men with black, jobless men, you know, the racial disparity in violent crime virtually disappears.

So, you know, what we're dealing with when we're talking about violent crime is chronic joblessness in urban areas where work has disappeared due to the closing of factories, deindustrialization and globalization.

SEABROOK: Another...

Prof. ALEXANDER: But again, I have to underscore, though, that the prison boom has been driven by nonviolent and drug-related offenses, the very types of crimes that occur with equal frequency in middle-class white communities, on college campuses and universities, but are often ignored.

SEABROOK: I want to go to the phones. Steve(ph) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He's a police officer. Hi, Steve, you're on the air.

STEVE (Caller): Yes, I'm a former police officer in a major Midwestern city. And I can just give you my perspective from having that job for 15 years. Number one, I noticed the disparity between the officers that are actually on the street to enforce the law. Basically, they are white males. Number two is that they associated arrests with money-making. When a police officer goes to court off duty, he makes money. Now, it doesn't matter whether it's a felony or a misdemeanor, if you look at the financial inducement there, coupled with the administration's stress for numbers, they really - was not concerned about the quality of the arrests. They just wanted numbers. And even the administration, they would have to produce more this year than they did last year.

SEABROOK: Now Steve, does that - did you - do you notice that those police officers on the street are actually arresting more blacks than whites?

STEVE: Well, it's just that you have more access to blacks in a city, urban environment because when you ride through neighborhoods, that's all you see. You don't see whites. And then the whites that do come in from the neighborhoods to buy the drugs, a lot of white officers would give them breaks and send them back home. And the blacks that they investigate, they would arrest them.

SEABROOK: Thank you very much for your call, Steve. Let's quick go to Daniel(ph) in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Hi.

DANIEL (Caller): Hello.

SEABROOK: Go ahead.

DANIEL: Yeah, I kind of agree with the last caller. I think it has to do with accessibility with the police. I think that you have - at least where I live, you have a lot of blacks gathered together in projects in the city where, you know, the cops are more plentiful. But out in the county, they have less police. So I don't think the blacks are committing more crimes. I think it has to do with poverty. And the more poor people you have gathered in an area with more police, you're just going to have more arrests.

SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call, Daniel. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

A similar question is brought up by Donald(ph) in Gainesville, Florida. And I'm going to ask you, Michelle Alexander, to respond to this. How do you dissociate race incarceration versus socioeconomic status?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, it's relatively easy to do because, you know, the studies that have been done, particularly in the context of the drug war, clearly show that the rates of arrests for African-Americans are so off the charts. For example, you know, in some states, nearly 80 to 90 percent of all drug arrests and convictions have been of African-Americans- you know, a number that it just wildly out of proportion to the rates of drug use or sales within an African-American community.

So you know, the data itself shows that race is an overwhelming factor in the drug war. And you know, the question, of course - you know, the lingering question is why. You know, why is it that African-Americans have been targeted at such grossly disproportionate rates? Well, you know, a big part of the answer is racial politics.

When Ronald Reagan officially declared his drug war in 1982, it was actually at a time when drug crime was on the decline. He declared the drug war because pollsters and Republican political strategists had found that by using racially coded, you know, political appeals on issues of crime and welfare, get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare, he could successfully appeal to poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of busing, affirmative action, desegregation, many of the gains of the civil rights movement, and persuade those voters to defect from the Democrat Party and join the Republican Party. It was part of the so-called Southern strategy of flipping the South from blue to red.

So the drug war, from its inception, had relatively little to do with drug crime. Again, drug crime was on the decline, not on the rise, when the drug war was declared. And all of the policies that have flowed from the drug war - for example, the Edward Byrne Memorial Grant Program, which, you know, is a federal grant program that gives financial incentives - million of dollars - to state and local law enforcement agencies that agree to boost dramatically the sheer volume of drug arrests.

A number of people have referred to the financial incentives in the drug war, and it's true that law enforcement agencies are rewarded in cash for boosting the sheer numbers of drug arrests in their communities. And the tactics that are used in the drug war...

SEABROOK: That's - I have to say...

Prof. ALEXANDER: ...for boosting drug arrests wouldn't fly in middle-class, white communities.

SEABROOK: That is a very controversial idea you're putting forward, that this was all done on purpose to subvert the black community and the black voter.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, you know, again, I think it's - the point here is that racial politics animated the drug war. Racial politics gave rise to the drug war. I think it's going too far to say that, you know, the Reagan administration, you know, was out to oppress the African-American community with, you know, racial animus. I don't know whether that's the case. One of, you know...

SEABROOK: Mm-hmm.

Prof. ALEXANDER: ...former President Nixon's advisers, H. R. Haldeman - his former chief of staff - said, quote: The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to - end quote.

SEABROOK: I want to ask the last...

Prof. ALEXANDER: Now, this is a political story...

SEABROOK: Michelle Alexander, I need - I really want to hear just one last word from Dwayne Betts. And that is, you have a son; what do you tell him?

Mr. BETTS: What do I tell him about me?

SEABROOK: About this society.

Mr. BETTS: Oh, I mean, I think the reality is that once you become aware of what's going on, then you just have to guard against that. So what I tell my son is to be careful, and also I put him in situations where he just had - doesn't have to worry about that because he's not in that environment, and he's conscious of everything that's going on before it happens.

SEABROOK: Dwayne Betts, thank you very much. Michelle Alexander, to you, too. Thank you.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Coming up, we'll talk about what's driving the confusion over President Obama's religion. Chris Cillizza joins us on the Opinion Page. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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