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Putting blacks in prison is the latest legacy of slavery

I had the great honor of reconnecting with Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, recently. Bryan's crusade against racial injustice in the criminal justice system and mass incarceration has spawned The Legacy Museum and The Lynching Sites Memorial, and a film about his life - 2019's "Just Mercy." I met Bryan in 2006 during a civil rights and journalism seminar at North Carolina A&T University. Here's what I wrote about him for The Florida Times-Union in 2006 - and a photo of him and me now at the EJI.

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For a minute, I almost wished I could dismiss Bryan Stevenson as a fanatic for his scary remarks on how a justice system stacked against black people is poised to push them back into the Jim Crow days.

But Stevenson, a lawyer who is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama -- a nonprofit organization in Montgomery that represents poor people and Death Row prisoners who believe they have been unjustly convicted -- is no kook. And while what he said was scary, it was also sad.

And sobering.

"We're at a point in which we are incarcerating more people than ever before," Stevenson told a group of journalists at a symposium on civil rights at North Carolina A&T State University here.

"For black people, mass incarceration is becoming the fourth institutional barrier to progress for African-Americans. The first was slavery. The second was the Reign of Terror (before Reconstruction when newly freed slaves were being terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan). The third was Jim Crow."

Right now, Stevenson said, one out of three black men aged 18 to 39 will be jailed, imprisoned, or on parole or probation at some point in their lives. But that trend is being fueled by those who have committed minor, nonviolent crimes.

For black people, it is also fueled by sentencing disparities.

In Alabama, for example, white people who comprise the majority of felony DUI convictions serve an average of 38 months in jail. But black people, who comprise the majority of simple drug possession cases, serve an average of 130 months.

And the collateral consequences of locking so many people away are doing more to further devastate black communities than to preserve them, he said.

"This increase (in incarceration) is not an increase of people who are out doing the carjackings," Stevenson said. "These are people who are cut off (from jobs and services they need to start over) not because they committed a violent crime, but because they had a minor drug offense. ..."

"This creates a culture of despair that feeds helpless, hopeless behavior. It changes the way young women think about choosing mates ... it changes the way they think about family."

A number of criminologists are beginning to see this too; beginning to see that when so many people in a certain neighborhood are going to prison or jail all the time, that community begins to destabilize.

This is especially true in struggling black neighborhoods, where jobs and resources are scarce to begin with, and many young black men begin to give in to their despair.

So instead of being chastened by the prison experience, they become hardened by it. And once they're hardened, bad things happen.

"There are young black men who don't believe they're going to live past 18," Stevenson said. "They don't fear prison or jail, nor do they believe they can avoid it."

I've seen that kind of hopelessness, too. It's the kind that is probably driving Jacksonville's chart-topping murder rates -- an epidemic that is claiming a disproportionate number of black lives.

That's why I believe that any attempt to deal with the problem -- Jacksonville

Community Council Inc. is studying it now -- ought to examine the impact that

incarceration has already had on the black neighborhoods where many of the killings have been concentrated.

If large numbers of people are in and out of the criminal justice system in those areas, yet the murder and violence rate is still high, that might mean the threat of imprisonment has lost its edge; that it's time to look for another way.

It should also look at substantive ways to involve young black males in solving the problem.

It can be done.

Stevenson told me that in the early 1990s, a coalition of law enforcement off

icials a

nd community activists in Boston began to ask gang members and others to help them stem the murder rate there.

While asking the perpetrators of the problem to help may seem strange, it worked because the officials began to understand that what was behind much of the violence was a quest for respect.

During that time, Stevenson said, the homicide rate dropped dramatically -- and the gang members were praised for being the solution.

That is an idea that Jacksonville can try.

In any case, what Stevenson said was sobering and instructive. The easy solution -- locking people up and throwing away the key -- has given way to more complex problems.

People in Jacksonville's poorest, blackest communities -- the highest concentrations of murders in Jacksonville take place in neighborhoods where people make less than $20,000 a year -- are already isolated from legitimate opportunities.

But when they are further stigmatized by making the mistake of committing a minor crime, that situation does little to put social capital back into their communities.

Some start not to care about their own lives -- much less anyone else's.

That's why it's important that as Jacksonville tries to reduce its homicide rate, it doesn't pursue a solution that has deepened the problem. But most of all, black people must begin to grasp the toll that mass incarceration is taking on their neighborhoods -- and help reverse that trend.

Or else.

"We've got to start talking about mass incarceration in the same way we talked about Jim Crow and segregation," Stevenson said.

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1 Comment

Drew Edwards
Drew Edwards
Feb 11, 2022

Tonyaa, You are quoting people who have no numerator in their idea of what is comparably unjust. Here's a stat that continues to be replicated each year, for 15 years now. The number one predictor of a male ending up in prison for a violent crime, is being born to a never married woman, race is not a factor. Yet over 70% of blacks have this risk factor and less that 30 % of whites. Further, in their seminal book Crime & Human Nature (1985) Harvard professors J Q Wilson; R J Herrnstein found though their exhaustive research that communities that inculcate self control in the children, regardless of economic circumstances, zip code or Race have markedly less crim…

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