MIAMI —For the first time in nearly 40 years, the number of state prisoners in the U.S. has declined. Data compiled by The Pew Center on the States indicates that as of Jan. 1, 2010, there were 1,404,053 persons under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities. The decrease, which is the first year-to-year drop in the state prison population since 1972, is significant as state inmate numbers had risen a whopping 708 percent between 1972 and 2008 before dropping in 2009. Experts had attributed the rise to stiffer sentencing and release laws meaning that more offenders were being sent to prison and kept there for longer terms.
However, the report also shows that when factoring in federal prisoners and local jail inmates, the overall incarcerated population in the U.S. as of 2008 had reached an all-time high — 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. were living behind bars.
Florida numbers on the rise
The Pew survey revealed great variation among the states. In 26 states, the population dropped in states like Michigan, Maryland and Mississippi posting substantial declines of more than 1,000 inmates. [Michigan’s numbers dropped by 3,260 state inmates.] But among the 24 states where the prison population increased, more than half of the increase occurred in just five states: Pennsylvania (2,122), Florida (1,527), Indiana (1,496), Louisiana (1,399) and Alabama (1,053). Analysts say the tremendous variation among growth rates points to the role that state policy plays in determining the size and cost of the prison system.
Blacks still face longer sentences than whites
But there are other glaring statistics that should be of particular interest to Blacks. According to the Sentencing Project, while the incarceration rates for Blacks dropped sharply from 2008 to 2009, Blacks still account for an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. prison population — despite comprising only 12 percent of the U.S. population.
Over a 10-year period, Black women saw the most significant decline, dropping 30.7 percent. In 2000, Black women were imprisoned at six times the rate of white women; by 2008, they were 2.8 times more likely to be in prison. For Black men, the rate of imprisonment decreased by 9.8 percent. And while you may not know it from watching the evening news, white men and women are now being incarcerated at greater rates, rising 47.1 percent for white women and 8.5 percent for white men. Hispanic women were next with an increase of 23.3 percent.
But what do the numbers mean and do they justify reasons for Blacks to celebrate?
Civil rights attorney H.T. Smith, 65, believes that declining numbers have more to do with the economy than an effort to reduce sentencing disparities.
“People in power do not see Black women as a threat so we see fewer of them going to prison,” he said. “On the other hand, Black males 13-29 are viewed as a real menace to society. They get involved in the system earlier through field interrogation cards that include their name, address, tattoos and other data. The Black male is still viewed as the most dangerous creature on the planet. In the early 1990s, Haki Madhubuti wrote “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?, and addressed the critical issues facing the Black family. We ignored him then but his words have proven to be prophetic.”
As for disparities in sentencing, Smith says that things are getting better but have a long way to go.
“Judges still have discretion in their sentencing, but with federal guidelines now in place, we are seeing the disparity between Blacks and whites decreasing,” he said. “That’s the good news. But the bad news is that while the gap was once 40 percent , Blacks are still sentenced for the same crimes at a rate 20 percent greater than whites.”
Can Black families reclaim their youth?
T. Willard Fair, 74, CEO Urban League of Greater Miami says things still look bad for Blacks — and with good reason.
“When you look at the people doing the arresting, the juries that we tend to face and the judge who is responsible for the sentence, it should not surprise us that Blacks are getting longer sentences or that Blacks make up the largest percentage of those incarcerated,” he said. “You have to wonder, when we will wake up? This has less to do with politics and more to do with the inability of the Black family to function in a healthy, positive manner. We have more women having children out of wedlock and we have fewer Black men actively engaged in the lives of their children. In Liberty City, it isn’t whites who are doing the killing. It’s Blacks shooting other Blacks. Our response is to have a meeting or a press conference which does nothing. Why do we have one woman having children by three or four different men? If things are bad for Blacks we have to start pointing the finger at ourselves and examine the decisions we’re making.”
State Representative Cynthia Stafford says we must continue to demand greater parity in sentencing until the difference between Blacks and whites is zero.
“Florida and other states have moved towards privatizing the prisons and that means it’s now an industry — the prison industrial complex,” she said. “The purpose of any industry is to make money and in this case the product is our own people. Once Black boys get involved in the system, even as early as elementary school when they are suspended or put in the juvenile detention system, they become labeled. By the time they’re adults, they can’t vote, they can’t get a loan for college and they can’t qualify for a number of jobs. What options do they have left? In Florida, we have all but eliminated the effective programs that once helped inmates turn their lives around. What we need are more treatment and diversion programs included in our prison system. We need to bring back GED programs and college-level courses. Instead of investing in prisons, we should be working on enhancing reentry programs for former inmates. We’re spending our money on the wrong things.”