The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any wealthy nation, with about 2.3 million people behind bars at any given moment. (That’s 730 out of 100,000, vs. just 154 for England and Wales.) There are more people in U.S. prisons than are in the country’s active-duty military. That much is well known. What’s less known is that people who are incarcerated are excluded from most surveys by U.S. statistical agencies. Since young, black men are disproportionately likely to be in jail or prison, the exclusion of penal institutions from the statistics makes the jobs situation of young, black men look better than it really is.
That’s the point of a new book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, by Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. Pettit spoke on Thursday in a telephone press conference.
On the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Pettit said, “there was hope that perhaps the U.S. was becoming a post-racial society.” But it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. The gap between blacks and whites remains wide in employment, income, wealth, and health. And as Bloomberg’s David J. Lynch reported earlier this month: “The nation’s first African-American president hasn’t done much for African-Americans.”
The unemployment rate and the employment-to-population ratio reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are based on a survey of households—people “who are not inmates of institutions (for example, penal and mental facilities and homes for the aged) and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces.”
The reported figures are bad enough. The employment/population ratio for black males aged 16-24 was 33 percent in August, vs. 52 percent for white males of the same age group. But the black number is skewed upward by the exclusion of jail and prison inmates. The white number is also skewed upward, but less so because a smaller share of young white males are incarcerated.
“We’ve developed a distorted idea” of how young, black men are faring, Pettit told reporters on the call, which was hosted by the book’s publisher, the Russell Sage Foundation. The BLS methodology didn’t begin to distort the statistics until the mid-1970s, when the incarceration boom began.
I asked Pettit how this problem can be solved. The first thing she recommended was doing more to help young, black men get an education, since there is a strong link between failure in school and a life of crime and imprisonment.
A further idea is to reduce the penalties for nonviolent drug crimes, recommended another academic on the call, Ernest Drucker, who is a scholar in residence and senior research associate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and adjunct professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Imprisoning people for drug offenses can damage their ability to earn a living for the rest of their lives, dooming them to a life of poverty and recidivism, said Drucker, author of A Plague of Prisons.
Inimai Chettiar, the third speaker on the conference call, would go a step further and decriminalize acts like “turnstile jumping”—i.e., getting into the subway system without paying. Chettiar is director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
The popular “broken windows” theory of policing says that cracking down hard on minor crimes creates an atmosphere of law and order that helps prevent more serious crimes like robbery, rape, and murder. So Chettiar and others are fighting an uphill battle with their decriminalization argument.
There’s no question, though, that the plight of young, black men is even worse than the statistics generally show.