Last week the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that incarceration remains a thriving growth industry in the United States. According to the agency (pdf), by the end of 2006, 1 in 31 American adults were under penal supervision—either in prisons or jails, or on probation or parole. Then, this week, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission took aim at the disproportionately harsh sentences meted out for crack-cocaine offenses, suggesting that Americans and their democratic institutions might finally be waking up to the gross racial disparities haunting our prison system.
That’s all good news, but there’s still much work to be done, especially on the state level, where most of the country’s inmates originate. As Glenn C. Loury reports in “America Incarcerated” (reprinted from the Boston Review in our Nov.-Dec. issue):
One-third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. The other two-thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
If our criminal justice system is to resurrect its credibility, states will have to take the feds’ cue and shed their status as warehousers of low-level offenders of color.