So many black men get incarceration, not college

March 10, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Here's your depressing arithmetic for the day: In the 1990s, more young black men have gone to prison than to four-year public colleges in Maryland. So says a Washington, D.C., research outfit, whose findings are considered so alarming and newsworthy that, when it released them at a news conference last week in Annapolis, legislators and lobbyists addressed a hearing room crowd of perhaps six people, of whom two were reporters.

The raw numbers are 4,806 black men entering prisons from 1990 to 1997, and 4,256 black men entering four-year public colleges. The prisons are now 77.8 percent black - a figure that has risen through the '90s, when nine of every 10 inmates entering the system has been black.

"It should be a considered a state of emergency," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a private research and policy group in Washington. "But it's not. If these were figures for white people, it would be considered an emergency."

Instead, the numbers are considered merely one more barometer of perceived general wisdom: that, for all the modern civil rights gains, and all the millions of blacks who have joined the American socioeconomic mainstream, there remains an underclass locked into a cycle of poverty and crime, for whom states are spending millions of dollars to build huge holding pens for thousands of inmates, at a cost of about $20,000 per inmate per year.

Schiraldi's point? It doesn't have to be this way. Though Maryland ranks fifth in per capita wealth nationwide, he said, it ranks 33rd in spending on higher education. This, with Parris Glendening priding himself as the education governor. This, with the state riding an election-year economic high. This, with street crime levels dropping over the past couple of years.

Why compare prisons with higher education? Because they draw from the same pool of young people, and they compete for the same state dollars - and the comparison gives us a glimpse into the future of a whole community.

"Our children are being wiped out," said Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis, glancing at the tiny hearing-room gathering last week. "Look at the dropout rate, look at the youth programs eradicated for police money, look at the shabby schools. Any society afraid of its own children is doomed. And what are we doing for our children? Building prisons."

"More money to build prisons, less money for schools," added Montgomery County Del. Dana Dembrow. "In the [Gov. William Donald] Schaefer years, building prisons was the top priority. That money raided the educational funding. That's what we're trying to turn around."

But for all the good intentions, and all the declarations of emergency, last week's words carried a certain dusty quality, as though somebody rummaged through an attic and found some old Great Society notions to run up a flagpole and see if anyone would still salute.

The days of big anti-poverty money have long since vanished, and once-liberal politicians, hearing from frightened, fed-up constituents, have joined the rush to incarcerate instead of educate.

Across the country, Schiraldi said, states are routinely increasing their prison budgets while decreasing spending on universities. In Maryland, state funding for higher education has dropped from $609 million to $580 million in the '90s - while the prison budget rose from $293 million to $440 million.

When the decade began, there were 16,549 inmates in Maryland's prisons; today, about 22,000.

Why the increase? "Most of it," Schiraldi said, "is the war on drugs, the focus on street level deals. Much of that is young black men. Are young white guys doing drugs? Yeah, but you don't see cops raiding fraternity parties, and I suspect they might find some drugs there."

While Schiraldi's not denying the high levels of street crime, he talks about a "front-end" approach - reaching these kids before the cops and the courts. Does it sound like warmed-over '60s liberalism? Yup. But the '90s approach - locking people up - is producing catastrophic results.

"We're not saying pat these kids on the back," Schiraldi says. "We're not saying, let's give them Man of the Year awards. We're saying, we can deal with a lot of these young guys in the community. Increase the system of supervision. Increase community service. And put in a system of financial restitution."

The words sound reasonable enough, but they float against a tide of the new American mind-set on law-breaking: exhaustion with a war on crime that never ends; fear of our children; and the desire for revenge, which manifests itself in the building of more warehouses for human beings, instead of more schools.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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