How can we understand the demonstrations that erupted around the country after the grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed African-American men? Commentators say these protests reflect the frustrations of African-Americans with their treatment by the nation’s police forces. In fact, the problem lies not just with the police but the entire apparatus we call our system of criminal justice.
The long arm of the justice system now reaches deep into poor communities of color in ways never before seen in our nation’s history. The police are on the front lines of this new system. The excessive use of stop-and-frisk, increased numbers of misdemeanor arrests, and gratuitous citations for minor infractions heightened tensions between the police and the people. This chilly relationship between the police and community, especially young minority men, added fuel to the recent protests.
But the police also play a role not of their own making. We live in a new era that some have called mass incarceration. Over the past four decades, the US incarceration rate increased nearly fivefold, to a level unprecedented in our history. Incarceration rates are now five to 10 times higher than every other Western democracy. One in 100 adult Americans is in prison or jail today. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
The great increase in incarceration mostly affected African-Americans and Latinos. Between 1980 and 2008 the number of incarcerated whites increased by 585,000, while the number of incarcerated minorities increased by nearly 1.4 million. What’s more, the increase in the prison population was concentrated almost entirely among those without a college education, producing astonishing rates of incarceration for high school dropouts of color. For the generation born before the prison build-up, the odds that an African-American male high school dropout would go to prison by age 35 were 15 percent. By the time the prison boom was in full swing, the likelihood had increased to 68 percent. For many young men of color who are struggling to succeed, this dramatic change in life expectations has dashed what remains of the American Dream.
Some say that we built this formidable institution for a legitimate purpose — to bring crime rates down. But this flies in the face of research. A recent report of the National Research Council, which we co-edited, concludes that the vast expansion of prisons has likely had only a modest impact on crime. Research by the Urban Institute draws a similar conclusion about increased parole supervision. Most studies of stop-and-frisk policies show little if any crime reduction effect. Although we have learned important lessons about how to reduce crime, including through smart policing, a historic expansion of the criminal justice system in poor minority communities is not on the list.
But more importantly, the crime-reduction rationale overlooks bedrock American values. The modern justice system we constructed enormously expands state power, depriving millions of their liberty, and imposing unwarranted constraints on millions of others. African-Americans have borne the brunt of this government intrusion. Thus, the ultimate casualty of this new regime is a community that has throughout its history suffered under successive waves of institutionalized subordination — through slavery, convict labor, Jim Crow, residential segregation, and now hyper-punitive criminal justice policies.
Paradoxically, this new reality has flourished when crime rates — including those in African-American communities — are at historic lows. The residents in these communities must be wondering, “Where is the peace dividend? When will the heavy hand of the justice system be lifted in recognition of the new levels of public safety in our neighborhoods? When will society invest in proven crime prevention strategies that do not cause so much harm?”
These questions are rooted not in the events of the last months, but are deep in the history of the African-American experience. The fact that the nation has no answers threatens to undermine confidence in the rule of law and hamper the pursuit of racial fairness. At the deepest level, then, the protests after Ferguson and Staten Island are a cry not just for better policing, but for justice.
Jeremy Travis is president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Bruce Western is a professor of sociology and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. They served as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the National Research Council’s Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration in the United States.