Mass Incarceration and Racism Policy

By LaMar Hasbrouck, MD, MPH, Executive Director, NACCHO

According to civil rights attorney and former Stanford University Law Professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are currently more black men in prison or jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.

The United States holds the dubious distinction of incarcerating more individuals than any other nation. According the latest Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics, approximately 2.2 million men and women are currently imprisoned. The U.S. rate is nearly 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.

In a speech on criminal justice reform delivered in Philadelphia in July 2015, President Obama cited mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent offenses as largely responsible for the quadrupling the number of people incarcerated since 1980. He also noted that mass incarceration does not affect American communities equally. The President said law enforcement does not treat African American and Latino men the same as their white peers.

We know that mass incarceration disproportionately affects the African American and Latino communities. The statistics are grim. Prior to the 1970s, whites comprised 70% of inmates. By 2000, the situation was completely reversed. Blacks and Latinos now make up 70% of the prison population and whites the remaining 30%.

Our War on Crime

When we review the research, we can see that law enforcement has targeted minorities in a variety of ways. Studies have shown African Americans are more likely to be jailed while awaiting trial. They are twice as likely to be arrested for drug use as whites even though whites use drugs at similar rates. Studies also show African Americans are more likely to serve longer sentences than whites.

When DOJ examined the culture of the criminal justice system in Ferguson, MO, in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, it concluded in its 2015 report that the police and courts in Ferguson violated African American residents’ civil rights. The report stated that Ferguson officials targeted African Americans as a source of local revenue. African Americans were given excessive fines and fees. According to an NBC News report, African American drivers were four times as likely as whites to be stopped, and black residents were virtually the sole people to be levied with “quality of life” tickets such as “failure to comply.”

DOJ’s report of the Baltimore police department released last month also identified systemic abuses directed at the city’s black residents in low-income neighborhoods. They found that black residents were more likely to be stopped and searched as pedestrians and drivers even though police were more likely to find illegal guns, illicit drugs and other contraband on white residents. The Baltimore Sun newspaper, quoting from DOJ’s report, wrote the Baltimore police “perpetuate and fuel a multitude of issues rooted in poverty and race, focusing law enforcement actions on low-income, minority communities” and encourage officers to have “unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members.”

Racism and Incarceration – Health Inequity Issues

The lasting effects of incarceration are devastating for those imprisoned, their families, and whole communities. Many people who have been imprisoned are denied basic resources and benefits and may experience severe forms of discrimination.

Some incarcerated individuals may experience the onset of mental illness and exposure to diseases from other inmates. The Vera Institute of Justice calls mass incarceration and its health impact an epidemic.

Mortality statistics are higher for those who have been incarcerated than the general population. Those being released from prison have a 12.7 times higher risk of death in the first two weeks after release than the general population.

Chronic conditions and mental illness are pressing issues for those who have been imprisoned, given negative conditions and poor healthcare in prisons and jails. Post-prison mortality from drug overdose is 129 times higher than for the general population. Excess risk of suicide also occurs within the first few weeks of leaving prison/jail; almost 50% of inmates have a diagnosable mental disorder. Prisoners are not the only ones impacted by their experience. The children may suffer as well.

Children with Parents in Prison

Families and children of imprisoned individuals also suffer. More than 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison. According to the National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated, children are affected by mass incarceration in the following ways:

  • Approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
  • One in nine African American children, 1 in 28 Hispanic children, and 1 in 57 white children in the United States have an incarcerated parent.
  • Approximately half of children with incarcerated parents are under 10 years old.

These children may suffer negative health outcomes and long-term trauma parental due to parental separation. For example, studies show they have higher rates of attention deficits. They are at increased risk for mental illness and are three times more likely to suffer depression or behavioral problems than adults. In addition, these children are three times more likely to become homeless than those without incarcerated parents.

Poverty is also an issue for these families. A decline in a family’s income caused by incarceration may leave the family in serious financial difficulties, leading to a child’s inability to receive a good education. Mass incarceration is having a generational effect on families and communities. Local health departments are part of the solution through their ability to educate the public and collaborations with community partners.

Policy Recommendations for Local Health Departments

Mass incarceration and racism are public health issues. NACCHO’s new Mass Incarceration and Racism policy passed by the Board of Directors at the 2016 NACCHO Annual Conference in July addresses these entwined public health crises of mass incarceration and racism plaguing many of our communities. NACCHO encourages local health departments to support and educate the public about the following public policies, in collaboration with their partners:

  • Support new model sentencing guidelines that reduce the length of prison terms to fit the crimes and end discriminatory practices that is proportionately sentence prisoners of color to longer terms for the same crime.
  • Support revision of disproportionate sentencing laws and mandatory sentencing.
  • Support the advancement of effective community-based alternatives to incarceration, including for those with mental illnesses and substance use disorders, including treatment and diversion.
  • Support ending the “school-to-prison pipeline” by opposing testing policies that lead to high drop-out rates, and providing greater resources for failing schools.
  • Support an end to excessive school discipline, suspension, and expulsion for minor infractions, which insert police and prison practices into school systems, especially regarding very young children.
  • Support efforts to eliminate the criminalization of inconsequential or victimless behavior.
  • Support policies that decriminalize minor drug offenses to reduce rates of incarceration and recidivism.
  • Support an end to discriminatory policing and enforcement of laws that target communities of color.
  • Support eliminating the use of unpaid fines for low-level offenses that can lead to incarceration.

To learn more about the roots of mass incarceration and to see the complete policy, click here.