The Racialization of Crime and Punishment

By , March 4, 2010 10:11 am
I'M HUMAN
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The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about one-quarter of its prisoners. As you noted, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 2.4 million persons are in state or federal prisons and jails – a rate of 751 out of every 100,000. Another 5 million are under some sort of correctional supervision such as probation or parole (PEW 2008). The US remains the last of the post-industrial so-called First World nations that still retains the death penalty, and we use it often. Nearly 3,500 inmates await execution in 35 states and at the federal level. It was not until the early 21st century that the US abolished capital punishment for juveniles and those with IQs below 70.

During the past 40 years there has been a dramatic escalation in the US prison population – a ten-fold increase since 1970. Between 1987 and 2007 alone, the prison population nearly tripled. The rate of incarceration for women escalated at an even more dramatic pace. The increased rate of incarceration can be traced almost exclusively to the War on Drugs and the rise of lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes and other non-violent felonies.

A similarly repressive trend has emerged in the juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system has shifted sharply from its original stated goals of rehabilitation and therapy, into a “second-class criminal court that provides youth with neither therapy or justice” (Feld 2007). Throughout the 1990s, the federal government and nearly all states enacted a series of legislation that criminalized a host of “gang-related activities.” This lowered the age at which juveniles could be referred to adult court, widened the net of juvenile justice, and made it easier, and even mandatory in some cases, to try juveniles as adults.

Recently scholars, educators and activists have raised concerns about the growing connection between schools and the prison industrial complex. The growing pattern of tracking students out of educational institutions, primarily via “zero tolerance” policies, and tracking them directly and/or indirectly into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems is variously referred to as the “school to prison pipeline,” the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track,” or as younger and younger students are targeted, the “cradle to prison track” (NAACP 2005; Advancement Project 2006; Children’s Defense Fund 2007). In part, the school to prison pipeline is a consequence of schools which criminalize minor disciplinary infractions via zero tolerance policies, have a police presence at the school, and rely on suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions.

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