The statistics are stark, but by now familiar: the United States has less than 5% of the world’s people, yet accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners; the incarceration rate in the United States is seven times higher than the rate in Western Europe; more than 1 in 100 adults are behind bars today. This extraordinary level of imprisonment is an embarrassment for the nation as a whole, but the concentrated, mass incarceration of African-Americans also has serious public safety consequences for those who live in the communities most disproportionately affected by imprisonment.
The rate of incarceration for African-Americans has always been higher than the national average. The steady climb in the rate of incarceration for young black men over the last 30 years has resulted in such a concentration of imprisonment in low-income African-American communities that sending those who commit crimes to prison now does more harm than good in those neighborhoods. Researchers confirm that the cumulative effects of mass incarceration – broken families, weakened social bonds, distrust of police, and compromised economic opportunities – have reached a tipping point, resulting in an increase rather than a decrease in crime.
Public safety also suffers when the financial costs of supporting such a high level of incarceration compromises the ability of local communities to provide a safety net for its most vulnerable residents. We spend nearly $50 billion a year operating prisons, money that could be put to better use strengthening mental health treatment networks, drug treatment programs, and support for parents of at-risk children.