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By Sarah Lazare, staff writer

(Photo: Bob Jagendorf / creative commons)

Impacted communities have long slammed U.S. policies of mass incarceration that are locking up more people than any other country in the world. Now that criticism is also resounding from the highly-regarded National Research Council (an arm of the National Academy of Sciences), which issued a devastating report this week charging that “unprecedented” levels incarceration are spreading great social harm.

Following two years of data review, the 464-page report delivers a round indictment of four decades of skyrocketing incarceration that has quadrupled the prison population and torn apart families, communities, society, and the lives of the incarcerated people.

“Those in power have tried to dismiss and disparage the communities and organizations who have been calling attention to these issues and struggling to change things,” Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance told Common Dreams. “Now you have the center saying the same thing people having been vocal about for a generation.”

Commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation, the report notes that 2.23 million people are currently locked in U.S. prisons and jails, but that number multiplies when people who are on parole or probation are considered. This is the result of an “unprecedented and internationally unique rise in U.S. state and federal prison populations” since 1973, according to an NRC statement.

The rising numbers do not correspond to an increase in violence, but rather, are driven by politically-motivated policy changes, including: the imposition of “mandatory minimums” in the 1980s, longer sentences for repeat convictions, and increased criminalization of drug offenses due to the War on Drugs.

The political push for these policies employs racist rhetoric. “Deeply held racial fears, anxieties, and animosities likely explain the resonance of coded racial appeals concerning crime-related issues,” states the report.

While the financial price of these incarceration rates has been high for society overall, the social and economic costs to poor communities and people of color is unmatched.

According to the report, “The U.S. prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged part of the nation’s population: mostly men under age 40, disproportionately minority, and poorly educated.” Sixty percent of incarcerated people are people of color, and black males who did not complete high school and are younger than 35 are more likely to be incarcerated than employed in the formal labor market.

Said Ontiveros, “We can read UN reports about genocide in another country, and do that at an arm’s length, but now we have even fairly conservative institutions like the National Research Council pointing out systematic state violence in the U.S. that uses courts, police, the prison system, cultural institutions, and media to target and unleash incredible amounts of violence against certain groups of people.”

Furthermore, incarcerated people disproportionately face “drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical illnesses, and lack of work preparation or experience,” charges the report.

While the these high incarceration rates are financially costly for society at large, the social and economic blow to low-income communities of color is unmatched. Prisons spread trauma and poverty through communities and tear families apart, charges the report. “Prisons are part of a poverty trap, with many paths leading in, but few leading out,” committee vice chair Bruce Western, professor of sociology, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.”

The committee made a series of recommendations for policies aimed at decreasing incarceration rates, including a “reconsideration of drug crime policy” and re-examination of mandatory minimum sentencing.

The report also called for steps to “improve prison conditions” and expand programming on the inside. Yet James Kilgore, who spent more than 6 years in prison and currently organizes with the No More Jails campaign in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, told Common Dreams, “What’s far more important is to reinvest money into communities that have been decimated by mass incarceration. Resources should go into community programs that keep people out of jail and prison, including public housing, substance abuse treatment, and mental health programs. Those programs, in the long run, will be more important than programs offered inside prisons and jails.”

Ontiveros agrees: “We should prioritize re-entry services and programs that are community-based and not under the purview of corrections. We cannot count on those who have propped up this abhorrent institution to be in charge of changing it.”

He added, “The bare minimum response to this report should be the immediate rolling back of the policies and sentencing guidelines and conditions of parole and probation and a swift and rigorous decarceration strategy for those who are locked up. If things still don’t change, we need to hold the people continuing these policies accountable.”


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.