Criminalization of People of Color

July 18, 2016

Article appears in our 2016 Summer Newsletter


         Two days after the Fourth of July, two more Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police.  Sterling was a father of five and was selling CDs outside of a convenience store when he was murdered.  Castile was a beloved cafeteria supervisor at a local school when he was shot four times by a policeman while pulled over in the car with his family in Minnesota.

         As of this writing, 566 people have been killed by police in 2016, and 44 percent of those are people of color. Sterling and Castile are the 114th and 115th Black men killed this year.

Racial Profiling and the “Criminalization” of Black Youth

         People across the nation have taken up the cry for justice and the slogan #BlackLivesMatter.  Every day, young black men are viewed as criminals simply because they are black.”  Blacks live under the daily threat of being harassed and killed by police while doing routine things in their lives such as walking home, going up stairs in their apartment building, and hanging outside a local store. 

         Most recently, several police officers were killed in Dallas during a community protest by a psychologically disturbed Black man unrelated to #BlackLivesMatter. This unfortunate tragedy has only worsened racial tensions and is particularly troubling in light of the current polarized political climate.

         Studies show that young black male students are more likely to be suspended or harshly disciplined than white students. People living in lower-income neighborhoods are the most likely to be victims of crime, so concerns about public safety are real.  But people of color and immigrants have been stereotyped as criminals and targeted with new public policies. 

         People of color are around 30 percent of the US population yet 67% of those in prison. While Blacks represent about 13 percent of drug users nationally, comparable to their share of the population, they represent 74 percent of those sent to prison for drug offenses.[1] People who can afford to hire their own attorneys are less likely to be imprisoned. 

Policies Based on a Culture of Fear

         In recent years, “Stand Your Ground” bills have been filed across the country that would give increased freedom of self-defense to those vigilantes who choose to take policing into their own hands, like the man who killed young Black victim Trayvon Martin. We already have laws to protect victims of violence who act in self-defense, but expanding private citizens’ right to use deadly force is a dangerous trend in our already violent society.

         Also growing is Three Strikes legislation that imposes harsh prison sentences for a wide range of offenses, often including minor or non-violent crimes. Similarly, “mandatory minimum sentences” lock people up for non-violent drug offenses have disproportionately imprisoned people of color and worsened the problem of an overburdened prison system with non-violent offenders.  

         Other proposals target undocumented immigrants—or anyone who may look like one. The “Secure Communities” program is a federal effort to involve local police in immigration enforcement, detention and deportation. In states where such measures have already been implemented, such as Arizona, widespread discrimination against immigrants and people of color has been the result. Thus far, Boston and other local governments have refused to become arms of immigration enforcement, saying that our collective public safety is actually threatened when immigrant communities must live in fear of police and local authorities.

What are the costs?

            Currently, overcrowding of Massachusetts prisons is at about 144 percent of capacity. There are approximately 11,800 people incarcerated in the Massachusetts prisons, and the prison population is expected to grow each year.  It costs from $35,000 to $47,000 per year to imprison an inmate in Massachusetts.  Meanwhile, the state spends only $10,000 per student annually to provide our children with K-12 public education!

         Many respected criminology and sociology studies have shown a direct relationship between low levels of education attainment and rates of incarceration.  So, comparing these two costs only, Massachusetts could expect to reap massive savings by dramatically enhancing its educational system. In 2010, 49% of males and 41% of females entered Massachusetts prisons with less than a 9th grade reading level.  Nearly as many had less than a 6th grade math level.

Clearly, more resources should be spent in primary and secondary education.  We could then expect a long term benefit in reduced crime and incarceration.  However, to address the short term problem of crime, more resources should be spent on education in prison, job training, rehabilitation and drug rehab.  These programs will dramatically reduce recidivism (a relapse into criminal behavior).  Studies have shown that longer prison sentences do not reduce recidivism.


The Prison Boom and Private Profit

         The US imprisons more people than any country in the world.  In the last three decades, the incarcerated population has more than tripled, reaching nearly 2 million in 2006. In 1980, about half of the people entering state prison were violent offenders; in 1995 less than a third had been convicted of a violent crime. While violent crime dropped, incarceration increased.  What is going on?

         As many government functions became privatized after the Reagan era, the Justice Department began to contract private corporations to incarcerate immigrant detainees and high-security inmates. Corrections Corporation of America, one of the corporate giants in the prison industry, estimates that more than $70 billion is spent each year on corrections.  These private corporations propose to build and manage public prisons more cheaply than the states.  In exchange, the states must guarantee a certain volume and prison occupancy rate!

         Prisoners also are an increasingly exploited form of cheap labor.  Prison labor is used to make license plates, grow prison food, process meat, make furniture, produce solar panels, perform public clean-up and replace unskilled state workers. A newly filed bill in Congress would require low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week.  Mass incarceration hurts everyone because not only does it cost society more but the use of inmate labor is also contributing to lost jobs, unemployment, and decreased wages among workers.


         For people of color and working families, public safety is a major concern, particularly in tough economic times.  But proposals to increase immigration enforcement or to indiscriminately lock up third-time offenders for 25 years do more to target and victimize people of color and immigrants than to truly improve public safety.  Those who benefit most are private corporations connected to the prison industry.

                Asian Americans suffer along with Latinos and other people of color from the culture of criminalization, as we are treated as alien suspects within our own communities. But Asian Americans are less likely to be targets of police violence than Black Americans, who are killed on a daily basis. As people of color whose pathway to justice has so often been paved by the Black-led Civil Rights Movement, we have a responsibility to stand up for justice today and to building the movement of #Asians4BlackLives.

[1] Human Rights Watch, 2000.  Punishment and Prejudice:  Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs.


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