The Crisis of the Young African American Male

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The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal Justice System

Marc Mauer Assistant Director The Sentencing Project

Prepared for U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
April 15-16, 1999 Washington, D.C.


THE CRISIS OF THE YOUNG AFRICAN AMERICAN MALE AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM Marc Mauer Assistant Director The Sentencing Project Introduction In recent years policy attention regarding the crisis of the African American male has focused on a variety of areas in which African American males have suffered disproportionately from social ills. These have included education, housing, employment, and health care, among others. Perhaps in no other area, though, have these problems been displayed as prominently as in the realm of crime and the criminal justice system. African Americans have been affected in this area in two significant regards. First, African Americans are more likely to be victimized by crime than are other groups. This creates a set of individual and community problems which impede upon other areas of productive activity. Second, the dramatic rates at which African American males have come under some form of criminal justice supervision has created a complex set of consequences which affect not only individual victims and offenders, but families and communities as well. This paper will explore the current status of African American males within the criminal justice system and consider projections for the future should current policies continue. It will also assess the factors that have created such high levels of criminal justice control. Finally, it will provide a set of recommendations for public policy that would help to alleviate the disastrous circumstances that currently prevail while having a more constructive impact on public safety. Overview of the Status of African American Males and the Criminal Justice System A wealth of statistical information is now available to document what a walk through virtually any urban courthouse or state prison displays quite graphically. A courtroom observer in New York, Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles or any other major city will witness a sea of black and brown faces sitting at the defense table or shackled together on the bus transporting prisoners from the jail for court hearings. In the prison visiting room, mothers, wives, and girlfriends who have often traveled several hours by bus or car wait to see their loved ones in stuffy and noisy visiting rooms with little privacy. Living conditions within the prison system have never been pleasant or comfortable, but a harsher political climate now threatens to undo many of the reforms achieved through litigation and political advocacy over the past several decades. Congressional action in 1994 prohibited inmates from receiving Pell grants to continue higher education studies, while many states have passed their own legislation denying inmates access to various forms of recreation or cultural activities. Much of this legislation has been not just mean-spirited but counterproductive as well, by limiting prisoners’ access to the acquisition of skills that might be used constructively upon their return to the community.


These conditions now disproportionately affect African American males and other minorities due to their overwhelming numbers within the criminal justice system. The state of these disproportions can be seen in the following: • • • 49% of prison inmates nationally are African American, compared to their 13% share of the overall population.1 Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day -- either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.2 As of 1995, one in fourteen (7%) adult black males was incarcerated in prison or jail on any given day, representing a doubling of this rate from 1985. The 1995 figure for white males was 1%. A black male born in 1991 has a 29% chance of spending time in prison...
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