Why Are So Many Black Men in Jail? Numbers in Debate Equal a Paradox

One number you’re bound to hear more about in the months ahead is the rising rate of young black men under supervision of the criminal justice system.

In a study released last month, the Sentencing Project, a left-leaning criminal justice think tank, reported that, at any one time in 1995, over 30% of black men age 20-29 were in prison, on probation or on parole, up from 23% only five years earlier. For whites, the comparable figure was 6.7%; for Latinos just over 12%.

This figure is rapidly insinuating itself into the public dialogue of black leaders. Speakers at the “Million Man March” in Washington last month repeatedly referred to the increased number of young blacks in jail. And African American legislators cited the trend last week as they bitterly criticized Congress and President Clinton for refusing to lighten federal penalties associated with crack cocaine--a drug that particularly afflicts the inner city. A federal judicial panel had recommended such a change.

The Sentencing Project’s incarceration numbers for young black men largely track with Justice Department estimates. And almost all analysts agree the trend constitutes a kind of slow-motion catastrophe. But its cause and meaning remain very much in dispute.


Black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson portray the figure as a civil rights issue--a sign that the criminal justice system is stacked against minorities. Exhibit A in that case is the treatment of crack cocaine in federal courts.

Federal law imposes a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for selling five grams of crack; it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. Since nearly 90% of federal crack defendants are black, Jackson at a news conference last week termed the disparity “racist.”

It is difficult to justify such widely disparate treatment--although the judicial panel recommending lighter penalties noted that distribution of crack is more associated with “systemic violence” than is the powder cocaine trade. But even so, Jackson and other critics place far too much weight on this differential as an explanation for the high incarceration rate of young black men.

The reason: The 100-1 disparity in treatment between crack and powder cocaine exists in federal law--while almost all crime in the United States is prosecuted at the state and local levels. Most states don’t differentiate between crack and powder cocaine; even the 14 that do generally don’t create as wide a gap as the federal law.

Federal crack convictions account for only a minuscule percentage of all blacks in prison. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures suggest that fewer than 15,000 African Americans are currently in federal prison on all drug-related crimes. Only a fraction of those are people convicted of offenses involving crack.

By comparison, 511,300 African Americans are in state and federal prison on all charges.

Moreover, in 1993, just 98 defendants of any race were convicted in federal court of merely possessing crack, while 3,100 were sentenced for trafficking. With Clinton’s support, last year’s anti-crime legislation opened a “safety valve” exemption from mandatory sentences for nonviolent first-time crack offenders. Even with penalties that may be overly harsh, the federal anti-crack laws are not sweeping into jail significant numbers of casual drug users, whatever their race.

Critics like Jackson and Marc Mauer, the author of the Sentencing Project report, are on firmer ground when they criticize the broader war on drugs over the last decade for moving large numbers of minorities into the criminal justice system. The increased focus on arresting street-level drug dealers has nearly quadrupled the share of blacks in state prisons (where nine out of 10 prisoners in America serve their time) who were sentenced on drug-related crimes.

From across the ideological spectrum, Mauer and neoconservative criminologist John J. DiIulio Jr. of Princeton University agree that government should work more aggressively to provide drug treatment and supervision that might help more of these relatively low-level drug dealers (and the thousands more like them sentenced to probation) avoid “a future that is wrapped up in the criminal justice system,” as DiIulio puts it.

But even the focus on the rising number of drug arrests in recent years can distort this debate. Emphasizing the crackdown on drugs, critics like Jackson portray the rising share of African American men under court supervision as representing a conscious urban policy of incarceration.

“Why are there so many blacks in jail?” he thundered at the “Million Man March” in Washington last month. “Is it behavior or is it the rules?”

In his subsequent remarks, Jackson made clear he believes that the principal explanation is the rules--mostly the drug laws. Mauer points his finger in the same direction. Yet drug arrests actually peaked in 1989. And the concentration on drug violations slights the role of violent crime in swelling the incarceration rate--for whites and blacks alike.

“No doubt the war on drugs has changed the prison population,” said Allen Beck, the chief of corrections statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. “But when you start looking at the overall growth, a higher percentage of [it] is for people in there for violent offenses.”

Blacks consistently account for just under half of all arrests for violent crime. And the arrest rate for violent crime has sharply increased since the early 1980s--as has the proportion of violent criminals sentenced to time in prison.

From 1980 through 1993, Beck points out, the number of inmates in state prisons for violent crimes increased more than the number incarcerated for drug crimes. Although the gap is narrowing, almost twice as many African Americans are locked up in state prisons today for violent crimes as for drug-related ones.

Most violent crime is committed against victims of the same race--which opens an entirely new window on this argument. The flip side of the increasing incarceration rate for young black males is the high crime victimization rate among African Americans, particularly young people.

Black men in their late teens were almost twice as likely as whites of the same age to be the victim of a violent crime.

All these numbers add up to a paradox. It is a social tragedy that 30% of young black men are now under supervision of the criminal justice system; it may be an even greater tragedy that young black men are murdered--almost all by other young black men--at 10 times the rate of whites of the same age.

Mark Whitlock, the executive director of the Renaissance Project at the First AME Church in South-Central Los Angeles, wrestles with this dilemma every day. On the one hand, he says, incarcerating so many black men digs a hole that virtually guarantees future criminal behavior. “I know that employers are going to look at their [criminal] records and say, ‘I can’t use you,’ ” Whitlock said. “And those are the men that you and I are going to be afraid of.”

But Whitlock agrees that citizens in his community deserve protection from violence and drugs. How, then, to break the cycle?

Whitlock focuses on economic development: “What we should do is begin to spend government dollars on businesses that create jobs.” But business cannot flourish in neighborhoods riddled with crime. And it may not be possible to substantially decrease criminal behavior without reducing an out-of-wedlock birthrate that now tops 80% in some inner-city neighborhoods.

Any of these changes will take years. In the meantime, Mauer says, all signs indicate that the share of young black men under court supervision will continue to rise. The answer cannot be to less vigorously pursue those who break the law--and thus deny safe streets to their law-abiding neighbors. But mechanically sending ever more young men to prison is a surrender to despair. Mauer’s numbers should not diminish our commitment to holding accountable those who break the law. But they should inspire an invigorated commitment to reverse the disintegration of moral order and economic opportunity that has encouraged so many young men in America’s most blighted neighborhoods to cross that line.


Crime and Race

Young black men are now under the supervision of the criminal justice system--either in prison, or probation or on parole--at a rate far greater than whites or Latinos. But African Americans are also victimized by violent crime at a rate far greater than other Americans. Most violent crime is committed against victims of the same race: 82% of young black victims of crime were victimized by other blacks.

Share of young men age 20-29 under criminal justice supervision

Whites: 6.7%

Latinos: 12.3%

Blacks: 30.2%


Violent crime victimization rate (per 1,000 persons age 12 or older) (1993)

Whites: 49.8

Other: 39.7

Blacks: 67.0

Sources: The Sentencing Project; Bureau of Justice Statistics