Black Youth and the Criminalization of a Generation

Part 1: A Generation Behind Bars: 1.8 Million and Counting

Revolutionary Worker #971, August 30, 1998

youth.gif (952 bytes)On August 8, 1998, a slow summer Saturday when no one was paying much attention, the Department of Justice gave the latest figures on the prison population.

There are now 1,725,842 people in state and federal prisons in the United States. Since 1990, even though crime has dropped steadily, the prison population has grown even faster. In 1994 the Justice Department announced that there were 1,000,000 people imprisoned. That means that in less than four years the prisons of the U.S. have added 3/4 million people!

Who is it that fills these prisons? Overwhelmingly it is the poor and the young. And even though Black people make up only 12% of the U.S. population, they now make up a majority of U.S. prisoners. Today there are almost as many Black people in prison as the entire prison population four years ago.

According to the Justice Department, 8.3% of all Black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are now in prison.

And there is no end in sight--everyone studying this problem agrees that the number of prisoners will continue to grow.

Of course, this is only part of the story. Most of us have heard how four of ten young Black men in the major cities on any given day will either be in jail, in prison, on probation or parole, out on bond, or being sought on arrest warrants. Or we may have read about how in 1991, in L.A. County, nearly one-third of all young Black men spent some time in jail that year. We may have heard how the police in the major cities list over half the Black teenagers and young men in the city in their "index of suspected gang members." And many of us either know someone who's been beaten or harassed on the streets by the police, or have been victimized ourselves.

So when people say "an entire generation is being criminalized" that is not rhetoric--it is reality. More than that--it signals a dangerous new twist in the twisted way that the system relates to the masses of Black people and other oppressed peoples. This is a deadly serious development. We have to understand the causes of that change, and then we must figure out what to do about it. This series is intended to contribute to that.

What's the Same and What's Different

It's nothing new that the criminal justice system would discriminate against and single out Black people. After the Civil War and Reconstruction in the South, there was the system of "convict labor." Black people--no longer slaves--would be arrested for "vagrancy" or "loitering," put in jail, and then forced to work the crops of white landowners. In the northern cities until rather recently, there would be routine and massive arrests of Black people on the charge of "suspicion"--that's right, just general "suspicion."

But the sheer dimension of what is going on today is a leap beyond what has gone before. Prison population figures (Table 1-3) show how the proportion of Black people in prison relative to whites has been skyrocketing. While today there are 3 times as many people in prison as there were in 1980, the number of Black prisoners has grown even faster. In 1974, 57% of all prisoners were white; today that percentage is less than half what it was. During the same period, the proportion of Black prisoners has grown by more than a third.

The figures also show the massive influx into prison of people neither Black nor white since 1981. This is mainly accounted for by the imprisonment of immigrants from Latin America. In California today, while Latinos make up 10% of the population, they are 35% of the California prison population; and 40% of the Latino prisoners are foreign citizens.

This terrible situation forces us to ask, how come?

The politicians and media offer a very simple answer to that question. They say that Black and Latino youth have become more violent and more criminal, and therefore they need to be locked up. Then they pump out untold numbers of newscasts, movies, books, and TV shows to convince us of this.

But is it true? A 1993 study in Michigan said that arrests for serious crimes actually dropped by 12% between 1981 and 1991, and that even of these serious crimes, only 12.5% involved violence. During that same time, all other arrests rose by 46%, and the prison population also rose. Nationwide, Black peoples' "share" of those arrested for violent crimes actually went down slightly--at the same time their "share" of new prison admissions shot up from 35% to 55%. In fact, taking the U.S. as a whole, between 1979 and 1991 there was an overall 27% drop in crimes against people (assault, murder, rape, etc.) and a 31% drop in crimes against property (burglary, robbery, etc.).

This is true even taking into account the terrible toll of drug-related murders among Black and Latino youth during the late '80s and '90s. Homicide rates among young Black men did rise to an all-time high in 1991--but even this high rate was not significantly higher than the previous highs in 1934 and 1973, and it has since dropped to historic lows. Of course, the politicians and police love to take credit for this recent drop. In fact, the real credit should go to the masses in the oppressed neighborhoods who have dealt with an incredibly difficult situation.(1) In fact, the rate had dropped by almost half between 1973 and 1983, and was continuing to drop--at which point crack was introduced into the ghetto (more on how this happened in Part 3 of this series).(2)

So if people have not gotten more violent, then why are they being sent to jail in such incredible numbers? What are people doing time for?

The War on Drugs: A War on the People

The biggest single offense is possession of drugs. There are now more prisoners in jail for either possession or sale of drugs than there are for all violent crimes put together. In Baltimore, where in 1992 56% of all young Black men were being controlled by the criminal justice system, most of them were on drug raps, over 90% of which were simple possession! Between 1980 and 1996, convictions for possession rose by an unbelievable 863%.(3) This means that for every person convicted of possession in 1980 there were more than eight people convicted in 1996.

Most drug busts in the U.S. are for marijuana offenses, and FBI Uniform Crime Report states that 80% of those arrests are for possession. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people are doing time for marijuana offenses--including 30 people doing life in prison on marijuana charges.

While the rate of drug use for the white, Black and Latino populations is approximately the same, the arrest rate is a whole other story. In Columbus, Ohio, Black people make up 11% of the population--but they made up over 90% of the drug arrests. 92% of all drug possession offenders in New York and 71% in California were Black or Latino (1991 figures). 90% of all juveniles arrested for possession in Baltimore in 1990 were Black. And these astounding figures pretty much hold true across the country!(4)

On top of this, the laws were intentionally written to reinforce the racist discrimination that already exists. Many people know about how you get a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing five grams of crack (the drug more prevalent in minority communities), while you get a one-year maximum for possession of five grams of powder cocaine (the preference among whites). (This particular law was written by the Klan's senator himself, Jesse Helms of North Carolina.) Though the majority of crack users are white, a study of 1993 convictions showed that out of 14,000 federal prisoners serving time for crack, 88.3% were Black, 7.1% were Latino, and 4.1% were white. In the federal courts of 16 states, not a single white person was tried for crack offenses between 1987 and 1992.

"Driving While Black" and Other Arrestable Offenses

But it's not just drug offenses putting people behind bars. Take a study from Jacksonville, Florida. The most common charge for which they lock up Black men in Jacksonville is not murder, it's not robbery, and it's not drugs--it's "resisting without violence." This charge means that you verbally object to being stopped or searched by the police. And of these, the largest single group had been stopped on suspicion of "driving with a suspended license"--the offense better known as DWB (Driving While Black).(5)

There were other crimes as well in Jacksonville. Who were some of these criminals and what were their crimes? An 18-year-old African-American youth, sentenced to 45 days for taking a cigarette out of a pack on a store shelf, smoking it, and then returning the pack. He spent two months in jail awaiting trial, unable to raise the $150 cash bond. A 32-year-old homeless African-American man, sentenced to one year for felony burglary for taking two clocks from a religious shelter. A 31-year-old African-American man sentenced to four months in jail for taking a pair of sunglasses from a store. A 32-year-old African-American man sentenced to 60 days for shoplifting a package of lunch meat. A 29-year-old African-American man sentenced to 60 days for theft from a convenience store, having put food items in his pants pocket. A clearly psychologically disturbed 54-year-old Black man sentenced to 60 days for trespassing and resisting arrest without violence; he had been accused of harassing customers at a convenience store and refusing to leave. A 65-year-old African-American man given 60 days for driving with a suspended license and an improper license tag (license had been suspended for failure to pay a fine). A 34-year-old African-American man sentenced to 60 days for shoplifting a package of meat from a supermarket.

The above people really committed only two "crimes": being Black, and being poor.(6)

The Trap of Parole Violations

Another cause of the huge increase of the prison population is the abuse of probation and parole by the authorities. Probation officers who think they are supposed to try to help keep the probationer out of prison soon find out that the reality is different. Today probation officers are trained to use what they call "intensive probation" to recommit people to prison. The motto on the office wall of one of California's chief probation officers read this way: "Trail 'em, Surveil 'em, Nail 'em, and Jail 'em." With this kind of approach, it should be no surprise that in 1993 more than one-third of the 120,000 prisoners in the California "system" had been put there by their probation officers--for "crimes" like missing appointments, not attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, moving without permission, having "dirty" urine, etc. Between 1977 and 1991, those being returned to prison for parole violation more than doubled, from 14.5% of all admissions to 30.5%.

Finally, there are "the lists"--that is, the practice of police in every metropolitan area to compile lists of "gang suspects." In 1993, for example, the Denver police admitted to listing over two thirds of all the Black youth and young men between 12 and 24 as "suspects." The federal government has assisted localities in developing lists of "serious or habitual offenders" among the youth--lists which, on examination, contain a large percentage of truants, etc. and are mostly made up of minority youth. And now the feds are threatening to develop a national list of "gang suspects" --a further step in the literal criminalization of a generation.

Reality Check

What, then, are the facts?

One, while the number of people locked up has way more than tripled in less than 20 years, violent crime has actually been dropping.

Two, the huge expansion of the prison population is due to arrests for either possession or sale of drugs, or other non-violent crimes. And these drug laws have been intentionally written and used in a racist manner to incriminate and incarcerate Black and Latino people, especially youth.

Three, in addition to drug laws, the police have used minor traffic violations, petty theft clearly from hunger and poverty, and even the "crime" of objecting to a search to incriminate Black and Latino people. And with Black and Latino youth, the simple fact of being young and minority has been enough to get put on a list as a "criminal suspect."

So, if the problem is not what they say it is--if all their talk about "criminal Black and Hispanic youth" is bullshit--then why is this happening?

These tables give some sense of how the proportion of Black people in prison has literally been skyrocketing over the past 20 years.


1) Mike Davis in City of Quartz details efforts from within the Chicano community to lower gang-related murdered in East Los Angeles from 24 a year in the mid-'70s to zero, right before the explosion of the crack trade. Also see the monograph by Ric Curtis.

2) Search and Destroy, Miller, pp. 8, 29, 60, 91.

3) Miller, pp. 8 and 15.

4) Miller, p. 82.

5) Miller, p. 108.

6) Miller, pp. 20-21.

CHECK OUT PART 2: The Political Economy of Racism and Criminalization

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