A Generation in Jail

CARL T. ROWAN

October 06, 1990|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON — THERE ARE so many things to worry about these days. The possible devastation of the U.S. economy because our lawmakers can't deal meaningfully with a budget crisis. The likely outbreak of a war involving nerve gases, biological agents and even ''small'' nuclear weapons.

But recessions, and even wars, always end at some point. Some social illnesses do not.

A report by the Correctional Association of New York and the New York State Coalition for Criminal Justice calls young black men ''an imprisoned generation.'' It says 23 per cent of black men ages 20 to 29 are in state prisons, local jails, on probation or parole. Some 12 per cent of young Hispanic men in New York are tagged as criminals -- and just 3 per cent of young whites.

On any given day 45,000 of New York's 193,000 young black men are in custody -- double the number of black men enrolled in New York colleges. The same is true of young Hispanic men.

The chances are dim for any increase in traditional man-and-wife families in black America when so many marriage-age males are locked up. Female-headed households will become the norm, with generations of black children never knowing the influence of a father figure, or a life in which they do not live on food stamps and welfare.

Do the figures prove that blacks and Hispanics have some inherent disposition to break the law?

What this New York study (and a national one by the Sentencing Project in Washington) shows is that blacks and Hispanics have been ghettoized into areas where engaging in violence and economic crimes are acts of survival.

Those incarceration figures also reflect many elements of discrimination within our criminal-justice system. Cops will ''bust'' a young black man, or a Hispanic, for offenses that are ignored if committed by a white male. A young black need only sound ''arrogant'' to be jailed by white cops.

A young black male is far more likely to be found guilty and imprisoned than is a white male accused of the same crime. Despite ''guidelines,'' a black or Hispanic is likely to get a longer sentence than a white offender. Parole boards do not look as favorably upon blacks seeking ''another chance'' as they do upon appealing whites.

The incarceration of a generation of young minority males carries colossal costs for all of us. In money. In our having to live with the often-violent rage of young men not yet incarcerated who see the magnitude of the injustices. In social programs, as we build more and more prisons and pay more and more for crimes, drug abuse and the sicknesses of households that will never be whole.

The pity is that while we have found no ways to ward off wars and recessions, we could avoid social calamity if we just abandoned the easy and cruel business of locking up young men for their skin colors, accents, attitudes.

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