Not long ago, a couple of months before Baltimore, I attended a public forum at the New School University’s Milano School of International Affairs and Urban Policy titled “Beyond the Rage: Strengthening Police-Community Relations”. The timing of course seemed particularly relevant in this new post-Michael Brown, post-Eric Garner era, perhaps even more so for whites who are just discovering police abuse of young men of color.
Only a few weeks earlier, I’d concluded a dozen years at the helm of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a leading advocacy group working to level the playing field for Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian-Arab citizens. For the past decade, one of the organization’s hallmark initiatives was working with the Israel Police to reform policing policies and practices to more effectively recognize the fundamental rights and needs of Israel’s 20% Arab minority. As part of the police reform initiative, groups of senior commanders and station chiefs studied police forces in transition in locales from London, Belfast and Madrid to Los Angeles and Washington DC.
What emerged from these learnings, whether in Belfast or in Baltimore, is that policing is at once an analog, a symbol and a barometer of the state of majority-minority relations within divided societies.
Talk to just about any successful black or Latino man in the United States about their experiences with law enforcement, especially during their growing-up years. To our African-American friend, a former mayor of an unnamed American city who, while serving as mayor, was followed suspiciously while shopping in a convenience store. Or to an Israeli-Arab member of Knesset who was recently detained by police for 15 minutes while driving onto the grounds of Ben Gurion Airport to attend an Abraham Fund board conference.
While presidents and parliaments are far-removed from the everyday reality of life, the police are there on the ground every day, for better or for worse. For all practical purposes, the Police is the State, and the police officer is The Man, as we used to say.
But bad policing is more often than not a consequence of bad public policy; the most visible and satisfying place to lay blame for a broken system built on defective social and economic policies. A system built on archaic models of criminal justice and mass minority incarceration. A system where race, ethnicity and poverty still matter. A lot.
The facts speak for themselves. Today, the US has 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of all its prisoners. Our incarceration rate is roughly four times that of any other country in the developed world, with minorities, the poor and the mentally ill grotesquely over-represented in our nation’s prisons and jails.
The US criminalizes more acts than virtually any other nation; acts that in many countries lead to community service, drug abuse or mental health treatment, or are not considered a crime at all. And that’s just the beginning of the story.
- More than 3 million men and women are incarcerated in the US; a number that has doubled over the past 25 years. As a consequence, 2.7 million American children have a parent behind bars.
- One in three young black men are under the direct supervision of the criminal justice system; either incarcerated, on parole or on probation. Among Hispanic men, that number is one in eight; for the US population at large, the number is one in 30.
- If current trends continue, one in three black men will spend some portion of their lives in prison. Think about what that means. And about the impact of entering the criminal justice system on the rest of your life.
- Nearly half of those incarcerated in state prisons have been convicted of non-violent offenses; generally drug, property or public order crimes. Drug offenses alone account for 17% of state inmates and 48% of federal prison inmates. Of the 10% of federal and state inmates serving life sentences, 10,000 of them are for nonviolent offenses.
- Our 50 states currently spend more on prisons than they do on health, education and housing programs combined. Mandatory sentencing laws, “tough on crime” policies, longer prison terms, and a dependence on prison as our primary defense against crime have created a massive prison system that costs well in excess of $50 billion annually.
The US prison population shows astoundingly high rates of drug and alcohol abuse/addiction, mental illness, under-education and chronic unemployment. A large percentage have parents, siblings, or children who have served time in prison, making over-incarceration a transmittable, multi-generational affliction.
At the end of the day though, more than 90% of the US prison population will ultimately be released from prison and return to their communities. Asks the Lionheart Foundation, “Will their experience in prison have made them better neighbors and more contributing members of the community? Or will they return to their communities and their families more violent and abusive than when they left?”
America’s criminal justice and incarceration policies going forward will substantially shape the answers to these questions, but so will reforms in policing, education, employment, mental health, addiction and social service delivery, especially as they impact poor and minority communities.
I look forward to sharing examples in the future of some of the forward-thinking work that’s going on in the field of criminal justice reform and police-minority relations, and invite your comments and suggestions.