OPED: Revealing numbers on race and prison

Isaac Bailey
Tribune News Service

You may know that the crime rate in the U.S. fell rapidly between 2000 and 2015, an extension of a streak that began in the early 1990s. You probably don't know that during that same period, the incarceration rates of black women and black men were also falling — belying the ugly claim that the U.S. needs the highest incarceration rate in the world to keep us safe.

The Marshall Project found that the black male incarceration rate fell by a hefty 24 percent during that period, while the rate for black women was nearly cut in half. Those are encouraging improvements, the kind of news that doesn't get touted enough.

One of the most devastating things the U.S. has done to black families in modern times was to so rapidly increase the number of black people being arrested, convicted and sent to prison as part of the unnecessary war on drugs and to attack a too-high crime rate in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The high black incarceration made already-vulnerable families and communities that much more vulnerable. My family was one of those families.

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"Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality," the Marshall Project reported.

That means we still have a long way to go to ensure that justice really becomes the focus of the criminal justice system. Too often, it is shaped by fear, revenge, poverty — and race. That must change.

Still, the recent improvements seen at the local, state and federal levels should serve as a reminder to activists that such progress is possible — that there is a reason to keep fighting even when the gains seem frustratingly incremental, not transformational — and to skeptics that the "tough on crime" policies that led to draconian sentencing guidelines is not only unnecessary, but often counterproductive. Even as we were imprisoning fewer people, the country was growing safer.

It should not go unnoticed that the crime rate in New York has reached an all-time-low after the discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy was discontinued — precisely the opposite of what many "tough on crime" proponents said would happen.

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And the still unproven "Ferguson effect" didn’t matter there, a city that experienced multiple passionate protests and bitter disagreements between a Democratic mayor and an aggressive police union after high-profile, controversial police killings.

It's not all good news, though. Researchers still don't fully understand why overall crime, or the incarceration rate, dropped so much during this period — or why it goes up and down in still unpredictable ways — which might make it harder to replicate that success. Local-level non-profits, even those not directly designed to reduce crime, have played a previously unacknowledged, significant role in that improvement, as have new policing policies and philosophies. But we've recently seen an uptick in violent crime, including in large cities such as Charlotte, and don't yet know if it is a blip or the beginning of an upward trend.

While the incarceration rate for black men fell by nearly a quarter, it increased slightly for white men and by an unnerving 53 percent for white women as the opioid crisis has taken hold. The gap between black men and white men remains large, but the gap between white and black women has closed to a 2 to 1 ratio from 6 to 1. We want racial disparities to be eliminated by reducing the rate for all, not by increasing the rate for some. We still have a lot of work to do.

— Isaac Bailey, a journalist and race-relations speaker, wrote this for the Charlotte Observer. Find him on Twitter @ijbailey.