Study after study has documented the overwhelming increase, over the past 30 years, of incarcerated persons. The most overrepresented group with regard to age, gender, and race is the group of young black men. Many of them were imprisoned for committing low level drug crimes (Miller, 2013). This is the legacy of the “War on Drugs,” except it looks more like a “War on Young Black Men.” It is no surprise to learn that, beginning in adolescence or even younger, this group is more likely to be expelled from school, sent to juvenile detention, use alcohol and drugs, join a gang, and to die or become seriously disabled from gunshots, beatings, gang fights, rape, and other trauma experiences. They are both more likely to be victimized and more likely to be perpetrators. According to Wheelock and Uggen (2006), “… criminal sanctions and victimization work to form a system of disadvantage that perpetuates stratification and poverty.”
Victimization can appear in many guises. Children who have been abused and neglected, teenagers who are murdered or raped by their neighbors, adults who are robbed, shot, or stabbed are all more likely in low-income black neighborhoods. In addition, Miller (2013) points out that the changes in public assistance that took place in the 1990s resulted in fewer families receiving help from the social safety net. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) established stricter criteria that meant many people who had previously received public assistance were forced to take low wage jobs, pushing them further into the cycle of poverty (Miller, 2013).
Police in many low-income, high-crime areas shoot individuals the moment they move their hands, in fear they are reaching for a gun. For example, police in Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of Michael Brown triggered a wave of riots, looting, and arson, continued to react with anger and hostility towards the crowds of people who wanted justice. Conflicts between police and citizens of Ferguson had been going on for a long time, including discrimination and racial profiling by the police (Agnew, 2015). When people are threatened by the very individuals who are meant to help them, what are they to do?
After incarceration, the same young black men often leave prison with felonies on their records, which means that in most states they cannot engage in a profession such as plumbing or electrical repair, because felons cannot be licensed. Even if they were able to attend vocational training while in prison – sometimes this is available, other times it is not – the training is unusable without a license (Mears et al., 2013). Other barriers such as community stigma (particularly for sex offenders), no support during transition, and debts make the problems of living outside prison very difficult (Morenoff & Harding, 2014). For example, if an offender owes child support, his or her wages will be garnished (assuming employment is found) or the person may be jailed again. Released prisoners often do not have any help, particularly financially, to allow them to adjust to normal, unstructured life, to get a job, and to find a place to live. They must rely on their families, if available, or charities, which are limited. These pressures may cause the offender to return to crime out of desperation (Roman & Link, 2015).
Sometimes, the supposed “help” they are to receive after finishing their sentences is just another form of victimization. A New York Times article by Kim Barker (2015) tells a depressing tale of former addicts and criminals, the majority of which are young and black, being victimized by the people who claim to be helping them. It describes the New York City phenomenon of “three-quarter houses,” so called because they are “in between” halfway houses and regular housing. Residents pay rent, but the company that provides the housing does not offer other social services so the houses are not regulated by the city or state. Three-quarter houses are part of a cycle of hopelessness that includes drug and alcohol addicts, treatment centers and doctors that pay kickbacks, companies who take kickbacks and induce residents of their houses to relapse, homeless shelters that are overcrowded and violent, and a city government that is so overwhelmed it is forced to look the other way (Barker, 2015).
In childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, young black males are subjected to a system of victimization which makes it nearly impossible for them to improve their lives. They remain stuck in an impoverished, depressing, hopeless place. More than one generation has lived through this already – it is time for a change.
- Agnew, R. (2015). Building on the Foundation of General Strain Theory: Specifying the Types of Strain Most Likely to Lead to Crime and Delinquency. Journal of research in crime and delinquency, 38(4), 319-361.
- Barker, K. (2015). A Choice for Recovering Addicts: Relapse or Homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/nyregion/three-quarter-housing-a-choice-for-recovering-addicts-or-homelessness.html?_r=0
- Mears, D. P., Cochran, J. C., & Siennick, S. E. (2013). Life-Course Perspectives and Prisoner Reentry. In Handbook of Life-Course Criminology(pp. 317-333). Springer New York.
- Morenoff, J. D., & Harding, D. J. (2014). Incarceration, prisoner reentry, and communities. Annual review of sociology, 40, 411.
- Roman, C. G., & Link, N. (2015). Child Support, Debt, and Prisoner Reentry. National Institute of Justice.
- Wheelock, D., & Uggen, C. (2006). Race, poverty and punishment: The impact of criminal sanctions on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequality. The Colors of Poverty: Why Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist, edited by David Harris and Ann Chih Lin (New York: Russell Sage, 2008), 23.