Xavier McElrath-Bey spent thirteen years in the Illinois Department of Corrections as an accomplice to gang murder. He was thirteen when he was locked up. Few people would argue that McElrath-Bey should have gotten out scot-free. If accomplices to murder do not deserve jail time, then what kind of criminals do?
To many, this is where the story ends. By locking up McElrath-Bey, the murder victim is vindicated. The case is closed, the villain is locked away, and the story has a happy and fulfilling ending. However, the truth is more complicated. McElrath-Bey will not be in prison for his entire life—he will be released when he is twenty-six. What sort of person do we want McElrath-Bey to be when he walks out into society?
Most inmates spend their time engaging in mindless prison labor. They do not have the opportunity to learn or further their job skills. Recently released prisoners are unable to find jobs or take advantage of public benefits, such as food stamps and public housing. Is it any wonder that over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years? (Pew Center on the States) As Take Part eloquently states, America not only locks people up, but “[throws] away the keys—the keys, that is, to rehabilitation and reintegrating to free society.”
Prison education programs are a great investment. According to Take Part, every dollar in higher education programs sees an 18 dollar investment. McElrath-Bey earned an advanced degree in counseling and human services from Roosevelt University (he also had a 4.0 GPA with his bachelors degree in social sciences). Now McElrath-Bey works with Northwestern University to advocate for mental health treatment for juvenile delinquents.
We can’t just lock up criminals and forget about them. What kind of people do we want to reintegrate to free society?
New York City’s crime rates have gone down, and yet fewer inmates are in jail. What gives? According to this New York Times article, the Big Apple has been focusing on treatment and rehabilitative programs “intended to help deter the return of former prisoners to jail.” The results have been noticeable: there has been a 32% decrease in the city’s incarceration rate from the past decade’s. The city’s incarceration rate is 27% lower than the national rate.
The data in New York City shows that incarceration rates are not necessarily tied to crime rates. The prevailing notion of justice is that incarceration will stop crime. This doesn’t seem the case here. We should dismantle the simplistic belief that just locking away criminals will solve the problem.
The New York Times has attributed the city’s success to a proliferation of rehabilitative programs for prisoners. According to the Pew Center on the States, over 40% of offenders return to prison within three years. With policies that bar recently released prisoners from public housing and employment, it is certainly difficult to stay out of crime. Programs that teach inmates job skills and policies that allow inmates to reenter society keep released prisoners out of jail.
The city should be applauded for its efforts. It has, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg remarked, “proven that… successfully preventing crimes and breaking cycles of criminal activity can save thousands from a life of cycling through the criminal justice system.” We can only hope that these kinds of policies become implemented on a federal level.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is controversial, and for good reason: the tone is harsh and urgent, the thesis is bold and nearly unthinkable, and the piling evidence is a slap in the face. In retrospect, the book’s prescribed shock therapy was the only way allow serious dialogue about the U.S. criminal justice system. Alexander questioned the notions that justice was blind, and that prison was the end-all solution for crime.
Perhaps the most surprisingly takeaway is the fact that incarceration rates move independently of crime rates. Of course, incarceration rates should move independently of crime rates. Prisoners are prisoners because they commit crimes. Therefore, incarceration rates should rise as crime rates rise. This is not so. The justice system isn’t objective and apolitical. In fact, it is shaped by political policy, and executed through subjective enforcement.
Alexander points to the extent to which drug policy has affected the justice system. The war on drugs has counted for two-thirds of the increase in the incarceration rate. The power of a simple policy change has transformed the judicial system, and the communities that we live in. Furthermore, certain policies disproportionately affects some social groups than others. For example, a more severe ban on cocaine than on crack has been interpreted to benefit white citizens. Policies are created by politicians, and are naturally political.
Lastly, the enforcement of policies can be handled in many ways. Selective enforcement affects the types of people that are arrested. Alexander makes the case that racial profiling is conscious and intentional; she points to the fact that though white professionals have higher rates of drug crime, 90% of drug arrests are black in many cities.
Justice can never truly be objective. Acknowledging this allows one to admit flaws in the justice system. Admitting flaws allows one to seriously examine and improve the current status quo.