The former secretary of labor on our prison industrial complex and the need for smarter sentencing laws
Imprisoning a staggering number of our people is wrong. The way our nation does it is even worse. We must end mass incarceration, now.
If I’m walking down the street with a Black or Latino friend, my friend is way more likely to be stopped by the police, questioned, and even arrested. Even if we’re doing the exact same thing—he or she is more likely to be convicted and sent to jail.
Unless we recognize the racism and abuse of our criminal justice system and tackle the dehumanizing stereotypes that underlie it, our nation – and our economy – will never be as strong as it could be.
Please take a moment to watch the accompanying video, and please share it so others can understand what’s at stake for so many Americans.
Here are the facts:
Today, the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but has 25 percent of its prisoners, and we spend more than $80 billion each year on prisons.
The major culprit is the so-called War on Drugs. There were fewer than 200,000 Americans behind bars as recently as the mid-70’s. Then, a racially-tinged drug hysteria swept our nation, and we saw a wave of increasingly militant policing that targeted communities of color and poorer neighborhoods.
With “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes out” laws, the number of Americans behind bars soon ballooned to nearly 2.5 million today, despite widespread evidence that locking people up doesn’t make us safer.
Unconscious bias and cultural stereotypes lead to discriminatory enforcement of the laws – from who gets pulled over to where police conduct drug sweeps.
Even though Blacks, whites, and Latinos use drugs at similar rates, people with black and brown skin are more likely to be pulled over, searched, arrested, charged with a crime, convicted, and sent to jails and prisons where they can be subject to some of the worst human rights abuses.
As a result, black people incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites, and Latinos incarcerated at a rate double that of white Americans.
Even if you’ve “served your time,” you never escape the label.
A felony conviction can bar you from getting a student loan, putting a roof over your head, or even from voting. It might even disqualify you from getting a job which can make it impossible for people with felony convictions to pull themselves out of poverty. And many who end up in prison were living in chronic poverty to begin with.
All of this means a lot of potential human talent is going to waste. We’re spending a fortune locking people up who could fuel our economy and build strong communities, in some cases just to increase the profits of private prison corporations.
So what do we do?
First, enact smarter sentencing laws that end mandatory minimums and transform the way we treat people who enter the criminal justice system. Instead of prisons and jails, we need well-paying jobs, and to invest in proven and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, like job training and mental health and drug treatment programs.
Second, stop the militarized policing and end discriminatory policing practices such as ”stop and frisk” and ”broken windows” that disproportionately target communities of color.
Third, stop building new jails, start closing some existing ones, and begin to invest in schools, public transit, and housing assistance or local jobs programs. States are spending more and more on prisons, while cutting funding for schools. That’s crazy.
Finally, “ban the box” – the box on job applications that asks whether you have ever been convicted of a felony on a job application. Already, dozens of states cities, and counties have passed bills requiring that employers consider what you can do in the future, not what you might have done in the past.
Instead of locking people up unjustly, and then locking them out of the economy for the rest of their lives, we need to stop wasting human talent and start opening doors of opportunity – to everyone.
Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie “Inequality for All” is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at http://www.robertreich.org.