“Mass incarceration disproportionately affects racial minorities.” North Carolina Advocates for Justice Board of Governors [full text]
Nearly 7 million people are in prison, in jail or under supervision in the United States. It is estimated that we spend more than $70 billion per year on them. That is a ratio of 7:70 or 1:10. For every 1 million prisoners, this country spends $10 billion on them. Contrast that with Charlotte, NC in Mecklenburg County – a county with a population of 1 million people and a county budget less than $2 billion.
In comparison, it costs $8 billion more to put people in small concrete cells to rot, than it does to operate the nation’s second largest and vibrant banking town! But the criminal justice system is not sustainable. Did you know that it is expected to go bankrupt by 2050? That’s not that far away.
Still, of these 7 million people, African Americans make up a disproportionate majority. Here in North Carolina, 57% of the prison population is African American, although they make up only 22% of the state’s population. It got me thinking “why are there so many black people in prison?”
A recent online anonymous post read like this: “if you don’t want to go to prison, then don’t commit crime.” It must follow then that if black people are overrepresented in the system, then ipso facto, blacks must be committing more crime. But I wonder if America really believes this?
A Question Amongst Friends.
A few months ago, I was at lunch with a group of white friends. One of them asked me as a public defender if my clients were mostly black. She continued “because when I turn on the TV and watch the news, all I see are the faces of young black males. No matter the crime, it’s always a black face.” Others agreed with her. The collective thought was that black males are in prison because they commit more crime. I guess America does believe it.
But over time, I began to wonder if this was just flawed circular reasoning. Do high prison numbers mean more crime and vice versa? Ultimately, I wondered “do black people commit more crime?”
Well, before I answer this question, I wonder if you will take a journey with me down “inquiring minds want to know” lane. I need to answer first, what is crime? Second, who commits it more? Third, is this the reason black people are overrepresented in the system?
What is crime?
Something does not become a crime simply because you get caught. Rather, crime is doing an illegal act, whether you get caught or not. Smoking marijuana is a crime. Drinking and driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher is a crime. Taking paper clips and pens from work for personal use is a crime. The list of crimes goes on. Let me ask you, have ever done something illegal?
Who commits it?
Picture a drug dealer. Go ahead. What does he look like? Are his clothes baggy? Skin complexion light or dark? Is the person you pictured a black male? Most people say “yes.” Let me ask you another question. If you have ever used drugs, who gave you those drugs? Most people say it came from someone white.
As a college professor, I ask my class of predominantly white students to raise their hands if they have ever used drugs, gotten into fights, used alcohol before the age of 21, threatened to harm another, or touched someone inappropriately/sexually? Sad to say, every hand is raised.
Are we naïve enough to believe that crime somehow stops when these folks enter the workforce? Unfortunately, drug abuse, domestic violence and employee-related thefts occur every day. But this is no surprise to you – you know this is happening. And isn’t corporate America predominantly white?
Would you believe me if I said that white people commit MORE crime than black people? Well, over the past 20 years, there has been a 130% increase in drug crimes committed by whites. Alternatively, there has been a 50% decrease in drug crimes committed by blacks. Statistics generally inform us that white people commit more crime overall.
Why are black people overrepresented in the system?
As logic would have it, my lunch buddies believed that more crime is the reason for high prison presence. But even though whites commit more crime, blacks are overrepresented in the system. So why are blacks sent to prison more than whites?
Back to the drug scenario, all communities are suffering from drugs and overdoses. However, when whites started to get arrested at disproportionate numbers, the criminal system responded, rather quickly, by creating treatment programs and new laws as alternatives to incarceration and convictions. Consequently, my white clients were directed down the path of treatment while my black clients continued down the path of incarceration.
The result is inevitable. Don’t just take my word for it … look to your own community to see who is filling the treatment facilities and who is being incarcerated. We call white drug users “addicts” and black drug users “criminals.” And addicts get treatment; criminals go to prison. That is our harsh reality. But why, pray tell, are blacks mass incarcerated? Well, at least for now, we know it is not because they commit MORE crime.
We face a major problem, America. This is not just a black problem. It is an American problem. And we cannot incarcerate our way out of it.
Written by Toussaint C. Romain an Asst. Public Defender in Charlotte Mecklenburg County. He represents Habitual Felons, Robbery, Drug Sales, Breaking & Entering, Serious Assaults and more. Mr. Romain is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, teaching a constitutional law course. Mr. Romain volunteers and serves in several capacities in his community at various levels. To contact Mr. Romain email him at Toussaint.Romain@MecklenburgCountyNC.gov or call him directly at (704) 686–0969.