If you were asked “what is the point of having prisons?” your answer would probably be “to make sure people learn from their mistakes and protect those in danger.” However, this isn’t the ultimate goals of U.S. prisons. Profits seems to be the drive for increased imprisonment, especially considering that most of those incarcerated were detained for drug affiliated crimes, not murder, theft, or rape.
With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States currently holds more than 2.3 million prisoners; that is more than triple the population of the state of Alaska. The Prison Policy Initiative notes that Black and Latinx make up about 59 percent of these prisoners. Despite the fact that Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population and Latinx about 16 percent, Blacks and Latinx are still America’s top prisoners.
Ibrahim Dahir, a senior at John D. O’Bryant, said, “the idea that an entire system is set-up against large factions of the population is utterly diabolical. I truly think this is something that should be talked about.”
The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health outlined that about 17 million whites and 4 million African-Americans used an illegal drug within the past month. Considering the population of both of these groups, black and white people use drugs at similar rates, but black people are six times more likely than white people to be incarcerated for using drugs. The disparity in jail sentencing does not correlate.
Mandatory minimums are the lowest sentences a defendant can serve for a particular offense. These laws are shown to have an influence on the aforementioned sentencing disparities. For example, in 2010, U.S. News reported that there was a minimum mandatory sentence of five years for a first-time trafficking offender found with only 5 grams of crack cocaine, and five years minimum as well for a suspect found with a 500 grams of powder cocaine. Despite the fact that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are chemically the same, because crack is more commonly used by black people rather than whites, they are faced with a higher risk of incarceration than powder cocaine users.
The Boston Globe reported that in November 2017, Massachusetts passed new legislation that reduces mandatory minimum sentences and treats 18-year-olds as juvenile. This new policy is one of the first things that must happen to dismantle this system of mass incarceration. But for this issue to be better addressed, other states must also follow these steps.
Mandatory minimum laws set sentences that are disproportionate to their crimes. Not all crimes have the same severity. It is absurd to imprison someone accused of theft for two minimum years, knowing that all they did was steal food at a gas station. America focuses on penalizing offenders with longer sentences, but long sentencing will not reduce crime.
Understanding the disparity in incarceration rates is just the beginning. We are unable to control how others perceive us based on our skin color or past mistakes, but what we can do is demand assistance from our government to prevent young people from entering the vicious cycle of incarceration. To better address this issue, reforms need to occur not only with laws but also within prisons and how they are run.
Mass incarceration shows us more than how active racism still is in this country. Knowledge of a crime is obtained from asking questions, making comparisons, and drawing hypotheses to explain the causes of it. In reality, criminologists do not find the cause of a crime from tangible evidence alone. Criminologists, as any other group of people, have prejudgments, biases, and beliefs that may persist and affect how they approach their work. In fact, they live in a society where all behaviors are racialized.
Criminal behaviors are often talked about in context of race. When these features become associated with people within a racial group, these misconceptions become the mirror for this group even if these circumstances are not true for all individuals. Sociologist and writer Jeanette Covington, who works at the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, affirms that racializing assumptions play a vital role in criminological theories. Criminal behaviors must not be assumed based on societal premises, as they lead to faulty and inaccurate perceptions of other people within that racial community.