Term Paper: Criminal Justice African-Americans and American Prisons

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Criminal Justice

African-Americans and American Prisons

In a time of great economic and social change, one American industry is booming: the prison-industrial complex. These prisons represent an ever-expanding apparatus of social control (Ward, 2004), one that, according to Julia Sudbury, is focused specifically on regulating, and further marginalizing the underprivileged masses in today's neo-liberal regimes (Ward, 2004).

Recent decades' "get tough on crime" policies, such as mandatory minimum sentences, "three strikes" laws, and so forth, have witnessed historically unparalleled rates of incarceration in the United States. As of the end of 2002, states Dorothy E. Roberts, the number of Americans currently imprisoned was more than two million individuals, a rate greater than that of all other nations, and five times as high as America's own rate of imprisonment in 1972 (Roberts, 2004).

Roberts cites David Garland, "This is an unprecedented event in the history of the U.S.A. and, more generally, in the history of liberal democracy." (Roberts, 2004) the drive to control American populations through incarceration has disproportionately affected the nation's African-American population. Nearly half of all inmates in America's prisons are African-American, despite the fact that African-Americans make up only twelve percent of the overall population (Coker, 2003). In contemporary society, a stay in prison has become - for many African-Americans - almost a normal part of life. The use of the prison system as a means of social control on this vast scale has its origins in a number of contemporary social and political phenomena in American life.

Among the majority White population, high rates of African-American imprisonment are seen as an outgrowth of a perceived African-American cultural propensity for crime, one that results from various factors some supposedly intrinsic to African-American society, and others extrinsic:

The criminogenic influence of socio-economic deprivation in black neighborhoods; the intense policing of open-air drug markets in predominantly minority inner-cities; and even the disturbing claim that, for some reason, African-Americans simply have a unique propensity toward crime. (Luna, 2003)

On the other hand, African-Americans tend to view the problem in an entirely different light, looking instead toward the imposition, or attempted imposition, of alien norms and controls by an outside force i.e., the White-dominated American legal system. The overrepresentation of African-Americans in America's prison system is the result of a,

Malignant cause-and-effect... precisely because of racial prejudice by law enforcement.... Although some disparities, such as jury decision-making in capital punishment cases, have relatively little to do with law enforcement, police officers still embody the initial contact between African-Americans and the Criminal Justice system. To the extent law enforcement is seen as an occupying force in minority neighborhoods, with black citizens policed by white cops, the police will tend to bear the brunt of local animosity that stems from racial disproportionality. (Luna, 2003)

Therefore, it is the police - the local representatives of judicial order and due process - who are seen as the cause of much of the perceived problem of African-American criminality. Extrapolating from this idea, one understands that it is the over-attention of White police, and the White law enforcement authority's excessive zeal in implicating members of the African-American community in unlawful activities that result in the extremely high rates of incarceration of African-American men and women. In short, a form of racial prejudice, conscious or otherwise, would appear to be operating in this regard.

Further complicating the picture is a marked change in the way American society views the problems of criminality. As stated above, the neo-liberal philosophy of the modern state has placed considerable emphasis on the need to implement increasingly stringent social controls. The attention formerly paid to the individual criminal or delinquent in the Early Twentieth Century (Harcourt, 2003) was consistent with the aims of a culture that placed increasing importance on a concept of individual perfectability. Once individuals were cured of their criminal proclivities, or rescued from whatever state or condition encouraged their recourse toward illegal pursuits, they would become productive members of society. However, in the last generation or so, society has shifted its focus from the individual wrongdoer to the wrongdoer as a de-personalized component of a criminal class:

Practically every state had repudiated in some way indeterminate sentencing and imposed significant, in some cases complete, constraints on the discretion of sentencing judges and parole boards. In many states, parole boards were simply abolished. The period was marked by a new era of uniformity and consistency in sentencing (Harcourt, 2003)

African-Americans, especially, were being categorized as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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