Saturday Mailbox

SATURDAY MAILBOX

September 08, 2007

Overuse of prisons harms black men

In his column about the documentary What Black Men Think, Gregory Kane suggests that the Justice Policy Institute's work publicizing the sobering statistics about African-American men and their representation in U.S. prisons vs. U.S. universities is misleading ("New film gets men thinking, talking," Aug. 29). He even implies that my group's work is the reason for a scene in the movie in which black people told the documentarian, Janks Morton, that there were more African-American men in jail than in universities.

But according to the U.S. Justice Department, there were 791,000 African-American men in prison and jail in 2002. At that same time, the National Center on Education Statistics reported that there were 603,000 African-American men in universities. The comparison serves as a reminder of the impact of the massive social investment the government is making in prisons instead of universities and of the community most negatively impacted by these policies.

Professor Bruce Western of Princeton University also showed in a 2003 study that, given current incarceration rates, African-American men born in the late 1960s were more likely to have a prison record than a college degree.

Also in 2003, a Justice Department study found that if incarceration rates continued at current levels, almost one-third of African American men (32 percent) born in this decade would serve time in prison at some point in their life, compared with 6 percent of whites.

In Baltimore, half of all young African-American men are under some form of control by the criminal justice system.

I believe such sobering realities are the real reason African-Americans would tell a documentarian that there are more black men in prison than in college.

The real issue here, however, is the nation's overuse of incarceration, its unequal impact on communities of color and the role the nation's policies and spending priorities play in creating the reality that there are nearly 800,000 African-American men behind bars.

Jason Ziedenberg

Washington

The writer is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Stigma on prisoners hampers re-entry

It's always interesting when elected officials do the right thing for the wrong reasons ("State to change policy on prisoners' release," Aug. 29).

It is truly insane to release prisoners with $50 in their pocket and expect them to get an inter-city bus home, pay for meals, find a home and get a job.

For those without any support system outside the prison (the situation faced by many people who have been incarcerated for a significant period of time), it's also a recipe for causing them to turn back to criminal behavior to survive.

At the very least, it would have made sense a long time ago to move prisoners as close to home as possible before their release. Of course, it would also make sense for them to be closer to home to begin with so that their families could visit and maintain relationships more readily - a strategy proven to help former prisoners avoid getting into trouble again.

It should have been a no-brainer for newly elected Gov. Martin O'Malley to address such issues months ago. Instead, it took just one intolerant and irrational statement by Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, and the governor acted immediately.

Mr. Bruchey's statements reflect the kind of attitude that has brought this country to the place where we have the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world and a greater percentage of our black population in prison than South Africa did during apartheid.

About 14,000 people are released from Maryland prisons every year. They are going to live somewhere.

Yes, most come back to their home communities, which are often in Baltimore. But we are, in theory at least, still a nation where people have the right to live where they choose.

And if we really want less crime, we need to stop treating those coming out of prison as if they are unredeemable.

Dottye Burt-Markowitz

Baltimore

The writer is a consultant for Alternative Directions Inc., a nonprofit group that helps former prisoners make the transition to life in the community.

Early releases pose threat to our safety

If a judge who is a lawyer cannot understand the system of mandatory supervision that will free Arthur Bremer 18 years before the end of his sentence even though he failed to earn parole and refused psychological treatment during his 35 years of incarceration, then how can the average citizen understand it ("Sentencing system defrauds the public," letters, Aug. 31)?

Even those of us who work in public safety struggle with the absurdity of a system that regularly releases violent offenders returned to the Division of Corrections with outstanding parole violations including serious criminal charges - in the worst cases even before the Parole Commission is able to conduct a revocation hearing - all because the system does not turn off the good-time credit spigot.

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