BlackAmericanAgenda for CRIME and VIOLENCE

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NewsOne and Tom Joyner present BlackAmericanAgenda, the six issues we feel are the most important for Black Americans in this election year. Let it be your yardstick for measuring the merits of the politicians and parties on which you’ll be voting in November, bullets of wisdom for the ballot box.

For a list of all the BlackAmericanAgenda issues, CLICK HERE.

BlackAmericanAgenda | CRIME/VIOLENCE

The Issues | The Backstory | Numbers To Know
An Expert Says | What We’d Like To See | Policies To Support

THE ISSUES

  • African Americans have a much higher chance of being incarcerated during their lifetime.
  • Blacks receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts.
  • The “War on Drugs” has helped land a disproportionate number of blacks in prison.
  • The number of blacks in prison is disrupting life for the entire black community by taking away mates and parents.
  • Black men are disproportionately victims of homicide, especially by gun violence. Other blacks are likely to be the killer.
  • Those returning from prison have a difficult time transitioning back into society due to discrimination against blacks and felons both.

THE BACKSTORY

African Americans get the worst of the criminal justice system, both as victims and perpetrators of crime. We are disproportionately the victims of violent crime; for example, Black men also make up almost half of all homicide victims in 2005 despite making up less than 10 percent of the U.S. population. Our communities are the ones most often torn to shreds by criminal activity. And when we are on the other side of the system — as suspects, defendants, or convicts — we receive unfair and often unjust treatment when compared to white Americans.

All of these numbers have jumped as the U.S. has seen itself become the world’s record holder for the number of people behind bars. The U.S. now incarcerates 2.2 million people, a 500 percent increase over the last 30 years.

It has taken the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression for cities, counties and states around the country to more seriously consider alternatives to incarcerations because they can no longer continue to house so many prisoners.

But the truth is, experts say, that we could never afford to be the world’s leading jailer of its own people. Once convicted of a felony, millions of people are effectively removed from participating in society when they lose everything from their right to vote, take out student loans, receive public housing or public medical benefits.

That has led to a permanent underclass as this country has adopted stricter and stricter punishment for crimes. Approximately 700,000 people are being released from prison each year and the United States lacks the policies to help many of them not return to the situations that may have led them to imprisonment in the first place.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

  • Blacks have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated during their lifetime compared to 1 in 6 for Hispanics and 1 in 17 for Whites, according to the Sentencing Project.
  • More than 60 percent of the people in jail are racial or ethnic minorities, according to the Sentencing Project.
  • Two-thirds of the people in prison for drug offenses are people of color, according to the Sentencing Project.
  • Blacks makeup 13 percent of the population but accounted for 15 percent of nonfatal violent crimes.*
  • Black males accounted for almost 50 percent or 6,800 of the 13,000 male victims of homicide in 2005.*
  • Black women make up 35 percent or 1,200 out of 3,500 female homicide victims.*
  • Thirty-six percent of black homicide victims were ages 13 to 24 compared to 26 percent of whites.*
  • The rate of nonfatal violence committed by gangs against blacks was 3 per 1,000 people while it was 1 per 1,000 for whites.*
  • Robbery accounted for 15 percent of violent crime against blacks versus 9 percent for whites.*
  • Aggravated assault made up 25 percent of violent crime against Blacks and 18 percent for whites.*
SOURCE: The Sentencing Project
*SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice

AN EXPERT SAYS…

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, says the United States is beyond the tipping point when it comes to its prison population.

“Over the last 40 years or so we’ve had this explosion in prison population. We have a world record number of people behind bars and it’s had a disproportionate effect on African Americans,” says Mauer.

“There’s a growing consensus that we are well past the point of diminishing returns. We need to shift our efforts to stop fracturing communities.”

There is some effort being made to address some of the sentencing disparities caused largely by this country’s failed “War on Drugs.” For example, New York has repealed its notoriously tough Rockefeller drug laws, which carried mandatory stiff sentences for drug crimes despite any discriminating circumstance. The judge had no discretion to take into account the circumstances of the individual charged with a drug crime. On the federal level, the disparities between sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine are also easing.

“In broad terms we want to get to a point where prison is used for people who present a true danger to society and need to be separated. As we save resources from reducing our prison population, we need to invest in communities and young people where the prison population comes from so they prevent some of these crimes. We need to look at which offenders can be kept in the community to get the services they need.”

When it comes to the high number of black homicide victims, law enforcement must begin to reduce the number of ever-increasingly powerful and illegal handguns flooding black communities across this country. These are high-capacity weapons that make it easier to kill.

“The gun lobby is incredibly powerful,” says Mauer. “Even though the majority of Americans support gun control, the powerful gun lobby makes it incredibly difficult to make change on the political level,” he said.

Local law enforcement can step up by taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, said Mauer. Instead of simply prosecuting the single case of a young man being charged with armed robbery, police need to investigate the source of that individual’s illegal weapon to help stem the flow of guns into neighborhoods at-risk.

“A small amount of suppliers are bringing guns into these neighborhoods. We need to trace these guns back so we don’t stop at one gun but look at the source,” said Mauer.

And many of the young black men committing some of the most serious crimes feel like outliers. They need to be returned to the societal fold, argues Mauer. The family structure and social safety net needs to be strengthened to help prevent poor decision-making.

“We need to create economic opportunities and life opportunities. People who think they don’t have a future ahead of them that does not include working in McDonald’s in five years make different choices than people who believe if they work hard they can do better. Many black boys look around and it looks like more black men are going to prison than off to college,” says Mauer.

“It’s time for reconsidering how much public safety should be a function of the criminal justice or should it be about strengthening institutions in the community that reduce crime,” adds Mauer.

WHAT WE’D LIKE TO SEE

  • An increased effort to stem the flow of illegal guns into the black community.
  • A reduction in sentencing disparities that see blacks and people of color jailed for longer periods for similar crimes than whites.
  • Create economic opportunities that give populations the belief that committing crimes is not one of their most viable options.
  • A reduction in the size of this country’s prison population.

POLICIES TO SUPPORT

  • Battle the powerful gun lobby to change laws that make it easier for illegal guns to flow into communities facing high levels of gun violence.
  • A massive program to help young black and Latino men see that they have a wider range of options than committing crime such as New York City’s Young Men’s initiative, funded partially by money from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
  • Drop mandatory sentencing laws implemented over the last 25 years and give discretion back to the judges to impose sentences that make sense based on the circumstances.
  • Federal funding of policies and programs that produce better results than straight incarceration such as prison-re-entry programs that provide people coming home from jail with the educational and training opportunities to make a successful transition to society.
  • Remove the state and federal restrictions that make it difficult for people coming home from prison to do everything from attain a driver’s license to a license to cut hair, and federal educational and housing subsidies open to all Americans.
  • Restore funding to educational programs in prison such as the federal Pell Grant program that allowed inmates to take college courses. Studies show higher education helps to reduce recidivism rates.
  • Eliminate the blanket ability of employers to discriminate against job applicants based on their arrest and conviction records, similar to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s decision to update guidelines regarding consideration of those factors in regard to employment. The federal agency now recommends individual assessments of a candidate’s criminal or arrest record. Failure to find employment is one of the biggest factors in recidivism rates.

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