Mike Brown. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray.
These are the names of black men from around the United States who have disappeared from this world in the past year due to tragic encounters with police. But they are only the most visible examples of men who have gone missing as a result of deeply flawed criminal justice system in the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of other black men are disappeared from everyday life because they are incarcerated in prisons and jails. This has led to a striking gender imbalance in many communities. In Ferguson, Missouri, for example — where Mike Brown was killed — there are only 60 men for every 100 black women. Similar disparities can be seen in Washington, D.C., as well.
Over the past 30 years, incarceration in the United States has increased 500 percent so that it is now the world leader with 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. About 7 million people are under the control of the criminal justice system. Millions of Americans have served time in prison and still carry the societal stigma resulting from their incarceration.
This historically unprecedented punitiveness has not cut across the population equally. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today will spend time in prison during their lifetimes.
One of the main reasons for these disparities is the war on drugs. This disastrously misguided policy — which was ramped by “tough on crime” policymakers in the 1980s — has put hundreds of thousands of people of color in prison and kept them there for long periods of time. Of those sent to federal prison for drug offenses, nearly three quarters are Black or Latino, even though people of all races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates.
If current trends continue, one in three black males born today will spend time in prison during their lifetimes.
But the drug war is not solely to blame. Disparities are produced by unequal treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system.
It begins with policing.
Low-income urban neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Latino are the most heavily policed. When Blacks and Latinos are pulled over in traffic stops, they’re more likely to be searched. Though Black people are 67 percent of the population in Ferguson, they make up more than 90 percent of arrests.
Once arrested, blacks are more likely than whites to be convicted. Once convicted, they are likely to face longer sentences. Racial bias — often implicit — influences all the major actors in the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, judges, and juries, as it does in all other areas of American life. Each of these disparities adds to the number of African-American men in prison or jail.
This means fewer opportunities for marriage and two-person parenting. It tears away at social bonds. It contributes to more poverty-stricken families, leading to less stable communities.
It should not be surprising to note that states with the highest rates of missing black men are disproportionately in the South. Southern states have long been the site of both miserly social welfare spending and high incarceration rates. Low levels of welfare and health care devoted to the poor have reduced the ability for individuals and families to rise out of poverty, live longer, and build healthy communities.
Bold criminal justice reform — in the areas of both sentencing policy and policing — is necessary to address the tragedy of America’s missing black men.
But we must also as a society rethink our under-investment in initiatives aimed at early childhood education, therapeutic interventions for at-risk youth, and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. Instead of investing in such interventions, we have turned to the criminal justice system, which is an extremely expensive, not to mention unjust way to address these problems.
If we really care about our missing black men we will begin to shift resources away from prisons and jails and invest them in communities. Not only is this the morally righteous thing to do, but it is also the only way to build a safer and healthier nation in which every life matters.