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Beginning in the mid-1970s, the prison system in America has had a high rate of expansion in terms of inmates. The War on Drugs idea swept the country. Crack cocaine was cheap, which made it the top choice in poverty stricken areas such as the inner cities, popularly known as the ghetto. The main residents in these areas were African American men and a high number of those incarcerated were African Americans. When they were arrested, they were typically given the maximum sentence and many were charged with intent to sell, regardless of the amount of drugs they possessed. In 1989 the number of Black prisoners surpassed the number of Whites. By 2003, some 832,400 Black Americans were in the nations prisons and jail system compared to 665,100 Whites and 363,900 Hispanic males. African Americans account for 12 percent of the U.S. population, though an estimated 38.9 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. are African American. In the late 1990s about 9 percent of the total black population in the U.S. was under correctional supervision compared to 2 percent of the White adult population. Some 33 percent of the African American male population between twenty and twenty-nine years of age were either in prison, jail, or on probation or parole. Over half of the drug offenses in 1998 represented were African American. In each year, about 6 in 10 jail inmates were racial or ethnic minorities. In 2002 blacks made up 40% of the jail inmate population; Hispanics, 19%; and whites, 36%. (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005).
According to the Justice Department report released in July 2003, the U.S. prison population surpassed 2 million for the first time. Since 1990, the U.S. prison population, already the world's largest, has almost doubled. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute in 2002, the number of Black men in prison has grown five times the rate it was twenty years ago. Today, more African-American men are in jail than in college. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2003), an African-American boy born in 2001 faced a 32 percent chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, compared to a 17 percent likelihood for a Hispanic boy and a 6 percent likelihood for a white boy. U.S. incarceration rates by race, in June 30, 2006 were 409 Whites per 100,000, 1,038 Latinos per 100,000, 2,468 Blacks per 100,000. Looking at just the males by race, and the incarceration rates become even more frightening. In June 30, 2006 were 736 White males per 100,000, 1,862 Latino males per 100,000, 4,789 Black males per 100,000. If you look at males aged 25-29 and by race, you can see what is going on even clearer, In June 30, 2006 there were 1,685 White males ages 25-29 per 100,000, 3,912 Latino males ages 25-29 per 100,000, 11,695 Black males ages 25-29 per 100,000.
"Getting people to recognize that there is a problem with overrepresentation of minorities in the system has been a major obstacle to doing anything about it," said James Coldren, president of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group based in Chicago. The bigger problem is with the social and economic disparities that exist in our society, which in turn lead to disparities in the criminal justice system. "If you really want to address disparity, you really have to look beyond the criminal justice system. You have to look at the risk factors. This isn't a problem that's just a criminal justice problem," according to Authority Senior Research Analyst Phillip Stevenson. Researchers have found that African Americans have the highest risk factors, with greater exposure to poverty, family violence and education. African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses. 27 percent of the Hispanics and 25 percent of the African Americans were imprisoned for drug offenses, compared to only 15 percent of the whites (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005).
From 1990 to 1998, increases in drug offenders accounted for 25 percent of the total growth among African-American inmates, 18 percent of the growth among Hispanic inmates, and 12 percent of the growth among white inmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000). Data collected on prison rates by ethnicity at key decision points in the system is vital to efforts aimed at reducing disproportionate minority representation. It is the first step in identifying a problem and creating a strategy to bring change. Reform on drug policy and laws such as getting rid of mandatory sentences, lessening punishment for drug related offenses and getting rid of three-strikes policies can greatly contruibute to the issue of prison overcrowding.
In 1986 Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which force judges to deliver fixed sentences to individuals convicted of a crime, regardless of culpability or other mitigating factors. Federal mandatory drug sentences are determined based on three factors: the type of drug, weight of the drug mixture (or alleged weight in conspiracy cases), and the number of prior convictions. Judges are unable to consider other important factors such as the offender's role, motivation, and the likelihood of recidivism. Although Congress intended mandatory sentences to target "king pins" and managers in drug distribution networks, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that only 5.5 percent of all federal crack cocaine defendants and 11 percent of federal drug defendants are high-level drug dealers. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Department of Justice have both concluded that mandatory sentencing fails to deter crime. Furthermore, mandatory minimums have worsened racial and gender disparities and have contributed greatly toward prison overcrowding. Mandatory sentences are responsible for sending record numbers of women and people of color to prison.
Prison Overcrowding More than 80 percent of the increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995 is due to drug convictions. Racial Injustice In 1986, the year Congress enacted federal mandatory drug sentences, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher. Women Between 1986 and 1996, the number of women in prison for drug law violations increased by 421 percent.
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