Prisoners Over Pupils

For the young urban poor, the pursuit of higher education was always an elusive goal. In decades past, those most determined to make the most of their often insufficiently-funded public schooling could actually get somewhere in higher education. As recently as the late 1980s, carefully-rationed state and federal grants and affirmative action programs provided a necessary leg up for America's disadvantaged youth, allowing many young men and women to be able to attend universities that would otherwise have retained their largely elitist, lily-white hue.

But today, says Justice Policy Institute (JPI) president Vincent Schiraldi, things are very different.

In essence, two decades worth of criminal justice legislation, an intensified and brutally punitive drug war, and shifting budgetary priorities have resulted in an alarming present-day social reality: Incarceration is now more common than higher education, at least where African American men are concerned.

In the year 2000, there were nearly 792,000 African American men in prison or jail compared with 603,000 in institutions of higher learning. Those figures, as released in late August as a part of JPI's groundbreaking report, Cellblocks or Classrooms? The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African American Men, are perhaps the starkest indicators, to date, of the glaring racial disparities in the American criminal justice system.

From 1980 to 2000, says Schiraldi, the report's co-author, there were three times as many African American men incarcerated than enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide.

"If we had just completed a study showing that we added three times as many white men to prisons as universities, any president would declare a state of emergency in America," Schiraldi asserts. "These policies would not exist if they affected white, middle class people in the same numbers."

"For poor communities of color," he adds, "we've closed the doors to universities, and opened the doors to prison."

Just days before the release of Cellblocks or Classrooms?, the Justice Department released its findings that a record 6.6 million people (or one in every 32 Americans) were entangled in the criminal justice system by the end of 2001.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics disclosed in their annual demographic prison report that 10 percent of all African American men aged 25 to 29 were in prison. Together, African Americans and Latinos constituted 75 percent of state prisoners serving at least one year for a drug-related offense in 2001. (Most drug-related arrests are for possession, over 40 percent of them for marijuana offenses.)

Taken together, the exorbitant costs of incarceration -- combined with glaring racial disparities in incarceration rates -- have provided the impetus for a growing movement of drug war dissenters ranging from civil rights activists to addiction treatment experts. The opposition to the War on Drugs also includes the likes of billionaire venture capitalist and philanthropist George Soros and the Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson.

"Few policies have had as negative an impact on low-income people and people of color as the War on Drugs," explained Deborah Small, Director of Public Policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) at a press conference in late August, introducing the upcoming "Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs" conference, to be held from September 26-28 in downtown Los Angeles. "What we're seeing is a major crisis in terms of priorities related to policy and spending," said Rachel Jackson, Field Director for Books Not Bars at the DPA press conference. "There's an extreme tradeoff between education and incarceration ... and young people of color are bearing the brunt of this incarceration nightmare."

According to Cellblocks or Classrooms?, low-income families were having to pay 25 percent of their income in 2000 to send just one child to a four-year public institution, compared with 13 percent of their income in 1980.

State by state, JPI's research revealed that the share of state and local spending allocated to corrections jumped by 104 percent in the last two decades. In the same time period, higher education's share of all state and local spending dropped by 21 percent. In many ways, California and New York exemplify the trend.

From 1985 to 2000, New York witnessed a 25 percent decline in the dollar amount allocated from the state's general fund to higher education. In contrast, the amount spent on the corrections system jumped up 137 percent.

For its part, the state of California increased corrections funding by 209 percent and built 21 new prisons between 1984 and 1994. Yet, despite an 800 percent tuition jump within the state university system, the state only found the resources to build one state university, all the while subjecting students to severe undergraduate class overcrowding, faculty layoffs and cuts to class schedules.

"We cannot definitely say whether the prison system is actually siphoning off African American men who were going to go to college," write co-authors Schiraldi and Jason Zeidenberg in Cellblocks or Classrooms?.

Yet statistical evidence seems to indicate that the criminal justice system is doing precisely that. In the 1990s, JPI found that for every African American man subtracted from a University of California or California State University campus, no less than 57 were added to a state prison. Figures like these have led some sociologists to speculate that incarceration has now become a commonplace event in the lives of undereducated African American men.

The correlation between a low level of education and the likelihood of incarceration is strong, according to the latest research from noted sociologists Becky Pettit (University of Washington) and Bruce Western (Princeton University).

In a comprehensive research study presented before the American Sociological Association last year, Pettit and Western found that for African American men born between 1965 and 1969, 30 percent of those without a college education -- and nearly 60 percent of those without a high school degree -- went to prison by 1999.

The estimated lifetime risk for imprisonment among African American men is now 28.5 percent, compared with 4.4 percent for Euro-American men. As a result, the researchers conclude, incarceration is "a new stage in the life course of young, low-skill black men."

"We can't just keep locking people up, particularly young people," says Aaron Dixon, a Seattle-based caseworker and community activist. "The focus on incarceration rather than education and social programs has destabilized families in African American and Latino communities throughout the country."

Dixon, a former Black Panther leader who served a prison sentence in California two decades ago, is in the process of raising funds for a new drop-in center for at-risk, low-income youth in Seattle's multiethnic Central District.

"We need to create new alternatives for young people," says Dixon. "We need to give young people an opportunity to have input to be able to improve their own communities ... We should look to decrease the sentences for drug [use and possession]. If we don't provide something for these people coming out, crime is only going to increase again."

After more than a decade of declining rates in violent crime, warnings like these are becoming a reality.

In 2001, federal statistics revealed a 9 percent jump in homicides in cities with 250,000-499,999 people. In California, which can boast of the nation's highest incarceration rate, murder rates are increasing in cities ranging from Los Angeles to Oakland, where 65 people were slain within the first seven months of this year. Almost all of the victims and suspects were African American men. 

But there is reason for optimism, says Schiraldi. Already, 13 states realized declines in their prison populations last year. "We haven't turned the corner," he says, "but at least now we can see the corner."

Encouraged by the successes of reformist treatment-over-incarceration initiatives in several states including California, New Mexico and Arizona, drug policy reform activists are also putting their efforts into the passage of similar initiatives in Michigan, Ohio and Washington D.C. this November.

In July, supporters of the Michigan Drug Reform Initiative submitted nearly 455,000 signatures of state voters in support of treatment instead of jail time for drug possession offenses. The Ohio initiative, modeled after California's Proposition 36 (which requires treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders) has popular support, but faces an uphill battle against well-funded opposition from the Governor's office.

And in D.C., voters will be considering Measure 62, the "Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders Initiative of 2002," modeled after California's Prop. 36 and Arizona's Prop. 200, which has already diverted many thousands of drug offenders into treatment rather than incarceration and has saved taxpayers nearly $10 million in prison costs.

During a time when no less than 41 states in the union are looking at an aggregate budgetary shortfall of $40 billion, JPI's Schiraldi makes the case that the time is right for a serious look at reversing budgetary priorities in favor of education, and away from overexpenditure in the prison system.

"Now is a good time for us to have this conversation," says Schiraldi. "Public opinion about the drug war has shifted, and states are facing a fiscal bloodbath. We need to be willing to look back at the last decade's worth of sentencing law changes and ask the question, 'Were they such a good idea?'"

Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on prison and criminal justice issues. She is also the co-editor of the online political monthly, LiP Magazine.

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