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LGD 2002 (1) - Sarkaris Avakian


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Racial Disparity Among the Incarcerated

Sarkaris Avakian


The 'War on Crime' switched to the 'War on Drugs.' The incarceration rate of African-Americans and Hispanics is disproportionate to their ratio in the general population although more Caucasians use drugs than the minorities. One in three African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 at the present rate of incarceration will have experienced imprisonment in his lifetime. One in six Hispanics is estimated to go to prison while one in twenty-three Caucasians will have a similar experience. At the present rate of imprisonment the criminal justice system will accomplish by the year 2020 what the state segregation laws failed to do as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

Keywords: War on Crime, War on Drugs, Racial Disparity, African-American.

This is a commentary published on 8 November 2002.

Citation: Avakian S, 'Racial Disparity Among the Incarcerated', Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD) 2002 (1),
<>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction

Richard Nixon chipped the vein of national sentiment with his 'Get Tough on Crime' policy proposed in the 1968 presidential campaign. Through out the seventies crime restitution programs, determinate and mandatory sentencing legislation was passed by the states. By 1981 the national commitment to annual police expenditures quadrupled from $5 billion to $27 billion. Prison funding overcame educational funding and grew faster than defense expenditures. By the end of the Cold War the incarceration of inmates was the growth industry. Incarceration zoomed 98 percent. Between 1970 and 2000 the number of people incarcerated in the United States skyrocketed from 200,000 to 2,000,000, a ten-fold increase.

Fueled by political propaganda and media-induced fear, middle class suburban 'swing' voters' fearful of street crimes gave the call for politicians, of both parties, to bate the public with the 'War on Crime' and then switched to the 'War on Drugs.' In 1968, 162,000 drug arrests were made nationwide. In 1977, there were 569,000 drug arrests. By 1989, there were 1,150,000 drug arrests. The FBI crime reports for 1995 estimates 1,476,000 were arrested for drug related crimes. In the year 2000 there were approximately 1,579,500 drug arrests.

Drug laws hardened under the Reagan Orthodoxy. The proportion of drug and minor crime convictions rose. In 1981 there were 315,974 prisoners in America's jails and prisons. Sixty percent were violent criminals. Between 1981 and 1987 the jail-prison population grew to 500,000. The ratio reversed. Those convicted of non-threatening property crimes constituted eighty percent of the prisoners. Victimless crimes incarcerated seventy percent of the men and women. Over sixty percent of the prison population had a substance abuse problem. Half the prison population of 500,000 was incarcerated for drug related crimes.

As the tide of prisoners rose, the expansion of the prison population and a six and a half times increase in the incarceration rate did not inhibit the crime index table or a recidivism rate of 72 percent. The 0.9 percent rise in crime in 1987 had not been statistically significant, but the blunting of street crime and the expansion of the prison system demonstrated a higher societal threshold tolerance for greater numbers of people in prison. After 1987, the disparity between the free and incarcerated continued to shrink at a growth of nine percent a year. Although crime plateau the overall pace of crime remained twice the level of the mid-60s, when the period of social disruption and increased drug use sent the street crime rate soaring.

Seventy-five percent of all street crime is related to drugs. Eighty percent of all street crime occurs in low-income households earning less than $7,500. The majority of the people filling our prisons come from impoverished backgrounds. The vast majority of low-income people of all races are law-abiding. The vast majority of people living in the impoverished areas are African-Americans and Hispanics. Ninety percent of all street crime involves several minority groups from low-income neighborhoods.

2. Enforcement of Drug Laws

Police enforce drug law focus almost exclusively on low-level dealers in minority communities. The majority of five-year sentences are due to minorities possessing five grams of rock cocaine. While the majority of drug users are Caucasians it takes 100 grams of powdered cocaine, the drug of choice in suburbia, to receive the same sentence. If authorities put as much focus on college campuses our jails and prisons would be filled overwhelmingly with university students. Whereas drugs are a recreational and discreet activity for Caucasians in the suburbs and university campuses, in the ghetto drugs are the coin of the realm. Hence the economic survival of maintaining the market turf gives the minorities a high profile because of street crimes.

Characteristically the crime problem is African-American and Hispanic. In America, African-Americans represent approximately 14 percent of the total US population. If the criminal justice system recognized the Hispanic population, approximately 15 percent, as a minority rather than a racial group, America's minority population would be a quarter of the general population. Caucasians and others make up the approximately 73 percent of the population. The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics specifies that citizen imprisonment rates are disproportionate to the number of minority's present even with the racial depiction of Hispanics as Caucasians:

a) Whites 48.21 percent;

b) African-Americans 47.01 percent

Hispanics, who in all other government surveys except the criminal justice system, are recognized as a minority is classified in the crime index as racially Caucasian. Racially categorizing Hispanic as Caucasians does not mask the findings. In 1930, 75 percent of all prison admissions were Caucasian and 22 percent were African-Americans. In 1992, 29 percent of the prison admissions were Caucasian; while 51 percent were African-American and 20 percent were Hispanic. Today two-thirds of the prisoners are African-Americans and Hispanics.

The public mood of 'lock them up and throw away the key' corresponds to mirror bias of those in the lower class rather than proportion of guilt, acrimony of the crime or race. 32.7 percent of the African-Americans and 28.7 percent of the Hispanics, which comprise 26 percent of the general population, account for 60 percent of the lowest one fifth of the population sharing 4.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The other 40 percent are made up of Caucasians (11.3 percent) and others-American Indian, Alaskan Native, Asian, Filipino, Pacific Islanders-comprise the remaining 28.7 percent. Stated another way, forty-three percent of minorities (African-American and Hispanics) are poor whereas eight percent of Caucasians and others are poor.

Poverty and the growth of poverty increase the likely hood to commit crimes in pursuit of property. Ninety percent of the crimes are to obtain property. Poverty is no excuse for crime. The fact that disadvantage minority men disproportionately fill the cells for non-violent offenses makes little difference. By 1990, local law enforcement authorities kept more than 50 million criminal histories on file. Another 4 to 5 million adults get criminal records every year through known associates. In other words, at least one in five Americans is officially a criminal.

3. Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission

Norval Morris, member of The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, says the:

'whole law and order movement that we have heard so much about is, in operation though not in intent, anti-black and anti-underclass-not in plan, not in desire, not in intent, but in operation'.

Criminal activity is not determined by race or low-income. Root causes of crime are not race, poverty, illiteracy, drugs or unemployment. Though the direct relationship to crime is unknown what is known is that poverty is the major cause of imprisonment and the majority of the inmates are from impoverished communities, the majority of whose citizens are minorities.

In 1982, the richest 20 percent of the general population had 40.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. By 1988, this grew to 46.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Twenty percent of the population had a density of economic and political clout over that of the spread wealth of the lower and middle class or 80 percent of the population. By 1995, the number of poor Americans was 35.6 million, up from 30.1 million in 1990 and 25.2 million in 1980. Chief Justice Brandeis said:

'You can have a concentration of wealth or democracy, but can't have both'.

The site of most crime in America, the victims of most crime in America, and the constitution of most criminals in America provide solid evidence that poverty and crime are as inextricably linked as money, politics and the criminal justice. By 1995 the total national expenditures for the criminal justice system was $100,000,000,000. In 2000, George W. Bush was adjudicated President of the United States. This has more to say about the division of powers then entrenching self-interests but isn't it ironic that citizens support the construction of prisons but oppose basic social and educational services to the poor; although, such intervention is cheaper than building prisons.

The increase in inequality since the late 70s made wealth distribution in the United States wider than was formerly perceived as class-ridden societies of northern-western Europe. The gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' is greater now than at any time since 1929 impacting all minorities significantly. Twenty percent of the population is poor sharing 4.3 percent of the GDP. Sixty percent of the poor are African-Americans and Hispanics. Seventy percent of the incarcerated are minorities.

Within a decade of its inception 'Getting Tough', 'The War on Crime', and the 'War on Drugs' lost credibility. In two decades, prisons created more criminals than they cured. In three decades the US prison population quadrupled and street crime rates remained close to constant. A failed but politically successful social legislative policy of modern public works built the dam higher: imprisonment does have merit. Incarceration stalls. Under the 1994 Federal Crime Bill, states received part of the $9.7 billion set aside for new prison construction only if inmates serve at least eighty-five percent of their sentences subsequent to parole. Nineteen-point one ($19.1) billion budgeted by Congress in 1996 was based on the requirement that longer mandatory sentences be imposed on mainly non-violent drug offenders.

African-Americans and Caucasians use cocaine and marijuana at roughly the same rate in comparable ratio numbers to their general population, yet African-Americans incur five times the number of arrests of whites for these drugs. African-Americans make-up 13 percent of the population and constitute 13 percent of all monthly drug users. They represent 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted of drug possession, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession. African-Americans incarcerated at a rate six times higher than that of Caucasians. Ninety percent of the prison admissions for drug offenses are African-American or Hispanic.

What is dramatic is that the chasm between Caucasians and minorities widened further in subsequent years as sentences got longer through federal funding of determinant and mandatory sentencing for mostly non-violent drug offenses. In 1995, African-Americans incarcerated at a rate of 1,947 per 100,000 African-American citizens. The rate of imprisonment, for Hispanics, more than tripled to 529 per 100,000 Hispanics. In that same year, Caucasians were incarcerated at a rate of 306 per 100,000.

The proportion of overall crime committed by minorities increased while Caucasian crime increased far less. Five times as many African-Americans as Caucasians are arrested for the serious crimes of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. About three times as many African-Americans as whites get arrested for less serious crimes, which make up the mass of arrests and currently deluge the criminal justice system. Data on Hispanic crimes is a specialty. Still we may draw some inferences.

Between 1965 and 1993, arrest per 100,000 for persons of all races for drug violations grew from a low of 27 in 1965 to 452 in 1993. The arrest rates for whites grew very slowly over the 1965-1992 period while the arrest rate for people of color increased. The high rate of blacks compared to whites cannot be explained by differences in drug use. In 1992 about 12 percent of both blacks and whites reported using illicit drugs at sometime. In 1993, there were 78 arrests of African-Americans for drug possession for every 1,000 African-Americans, while there were only 20 arrests for drug possession for every 1,000 white drug users. By 1996 it was apparent that for every Caucasian arrest, there are three African-Americans arrests.

Minorities commit more crime than Caucasians relative to their population, but the differences in incarceration cannot be solely explained by higher crime. Though no nationwide data exists on unfounded arrest rates a California study suggests that the African-American unfounded arrest rate was four times that of Caucasians while the Hispanic rate was more than double the Caucasians. The incarceration ratio between African-Americans and Caucasians in prison should reflect the disparity in arrest rates if there was no bias. The ratio of African-Americans to Caucasians in prison is seven to one.

There is a disparity in convictions. Thirty-three percent of convicted Caucasian defendants receive a prison sentence, while 51 percent of African-American defendants receive a prison sentence. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in the year 2000 that out of 100,000 African-Americans 3,457 went to prison, out of 100,000 Hispanics 1,220 were incarcerated and out of 100,000 Caucasians 449 were imprisoned. One out of three, African-Americans, between the ages of 18 and 34, faces incarceration. One out of six Hispanic Americans of similar age is likewise a candidate for incarceration. The Caucasian population within the same age bracket one out of every twenty-three will go to prison. An estimated 28.5 percent of African-Americans, 16 percent of Hispanic men and 4 percent of Caucasian men can be expected to serve a state or federal prison term.

The United States has the highest percentage of prisoners than any other country, i.e. China. We have 25 percent of the world's prisoners and the distinction of locking up higher ratio per general population than any other nation. California and Texas alone have more prison beds than Russia. One out of 135 Americans of all ages, both sexes and races was behind bars by the year 2000. Two million Americans are imprisoned. One in 32 adults, or 3.1% of the nations population in involved with the criminal justice system in the form of direct or indirect control. We are number one.

In the USA 6.5 million people were in jail, in prison, on probation, or parole at years end 2000. Approximately 2% of the potential work force has been stigmatized and about five million Americans lost their right to vote because of criminal conviction. A disproportionate number are minorities. In 1997, 1.46 million African-Americans of a population of 10.4 million lost their right to vote due to imprisonment. Reflecting a rate of disenfranchisement that is seven times the national average, thirteen percent of all adult African-Americans-1.4 million-are disenfranchised compared to the 4.6 million African-Americans who voted in 1996.

African-Americans makes up roughly 13 percent of the population. A third of the African-American suffrage is affected. Concomitantly one sixth of the approximately 15 percent of the Hispanic suffrage is affected. If we factor that less than half the general population votes the joint participation of African-Americans and Hispanics in the political arena combined equals half their 14 percent of eligible voters.

4. Projected Incarceration

It is projected that by the year 2020, 4.5 million African-Americans will be incarcerated. A quarter of the remaining half of 5.54 million will be Hispanics and the final 2.77 will be Caucasians and others. An estimated 10 million African-American and Hispanic will be in prison by 2020. A prison population that is five times as large as the prison population of all races combined today tolerates a growth in the prison population 12 times faster than the growth of the general population.

The percentage of minorities continues to increase at approximately the same rate as between 1980 and 1993. One out of three African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 will be in prison by the year 2020. For Hispanic men of the same age one out of four will be in prison by 2020. At this pace 4.5 million African-American men and 2.4 million Hispanic men will be incarcerated in 2020. This is a prison population five times greater than the prison population of all races combined today. At this rate the criminal justice system will accomplish, by the year 2020, what the segregation laws failed to do because of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

At the present level of incarceration by 2050 half of all African-Americans and Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 34 will have had some experience with prisons. Yet, reassessment doesn't enter into the thinking. Last year 41 billion was budgeted for the housing of prisoners. The operational cost of the military in Afghanistan is 10 billion. The budget for imprisonment alone, which would bankrupt the state governments if not for Federal subsidies, can absorb this year's International Monetary Fund 30 billion dollars bailout of Brazil with a savings of 10 billion. The United States affordably manages banking on increasing the debt of third world nations, launching Pershing like expeditions, accepting domestic economic inequity and racial cognitive dissonance by policing and incarceration although there is no scientific relationship between increased numbers of police and higher prison population in lowering crime.

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Author's Biography
Literacy Teacher, Avenal State Prison, 1988 to present. Out-of-class assignment: acting Supervisor of Academic Instruction (August & September, 2002). Master's in Administration & Supervision. Credential in English & Political Science from California State University of Fresno. Written for PBS, CBS and Educational Television. 'Dynamic Security', published in Journal of Correctional Education, March 2000.