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More Blacks Going to Prison in 17 Key Election States

More Blacks Going to Prison in 17 Key Election States
Black America Web.com, News Report,
Bonnie Winston, Aug 25, 2004

Prison spending grew five times as fast as spending for higher education in the past 20 years, according to a recent report examining prison growth in 17 states considered key to this year's presidential election.

And with the growing prison and jail population, nearly twice as many black men in their early 30s have been to prison as have obtained a bachelor's degree, according to the report by the non-profit Justice Policy Institute based in Washington, D.C.

"Prisons are growing, education is suffering and the African-American community hit hardest is increasingly shut out of the debate," Vincent Schiraldi, the institute's executive director and a co-author of the report, said in a statement. "As presidential candidates mine these states for votes, voters need to hear about how they intend to create a more balanced approach to crime that doesn't rob education to fund prisons."

The institute examined prison spending in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington (state), West Virginia and Wisconsin. Considered neither solidly Republican nor Democratic, those 17 swing states will be pivotal in whether Republican President George W. Bush is re-elected or whether his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, wins in November.

Eric Lotke, research and policy director for the Justice Policy Institute, told BlackAmericaWeb.com that the organization hopes to have an impact on justice policy by making its findings available to citizens around the country.

"By seeing what we're spending on prisons and what we're sacrificing to do that, people can ask questions," Lotke said. "This issue of justice policies has fallen off the road map."

Among the institute's other findings in the 17 states:

"¢ Dollar for dollar, state and local spending on corrections increased more than twice as much as spending on education or health between 1977 and 2001.

"¢ The average cost of keeping a person in prison for a year was $22,650 in 2001, while the average annual cost of undergraduate tuition at a public university in 2000 was $4,800 and $14,000 at a private college.

"¢ Nearly 7 million people in the United States are in prison or jail, or are on probation or parole; that's more people than in the eight least-populated states combined.

"¢ There is a dubious connection between increases in incarceration and decreases in crime.

"¢ Nearly 2 million adults in the 17 states are ineligible to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws in those states. Nationally, about 4.7 million Americans can't vote because they have a felony conviction.

"¢ Black men make up 30 percent of disenfranchised voters, but only 6.1 percent of the U.S. population.

Having undergone "30 years of get-tough philosophy and sentencing laws," the nation's criminal justice system is "not going to change by mere tinkering around the edges," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a national research and advocacy group involved in criminal justice issues.

He said today's focus should be on strengthening families and communities and on changing harsh mandatory sentencing laws.

"We need to make this a non-partisan discussion ... redirecting the debate to one of fairness and effectiveness," said Mauer.

Change may be in the offing, he said, because many states are in difficult financial straits and are re-evaluating their spending priorities – prisons versus education or health care.
And, he said, because of the positive outcomes from drug courts offering treatment to lower-level drug offenders, "there is the possibility (in some states) of expanding those types of programs" as an alternative to incarceration.

"When a young black man has nearly twice the chance of going to prison as obtaining a college degree, something is terribly wrong," said Jim Lanier of the National Urban League's Institute for Opportunity and Equality. "It is imperative that we shift the investment away from locking people up into educating them.

"It is also critical that those who would hold our nation's highest office tell us how they intend to address America's massive incarceration rate and the impact it is having on the African-American community," he said.

© MBM

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