Black Men: Left out and Locked Up: The Failures of Urban Public Education and the Criminal Justice System Have Led to What Many Are Calling a National Crisis

By Nealy, Michelle J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, February 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Black Men: Left out and Locked Up: The Failures of Urban Public Education and the Criminal Justice System Have Led to What Many Are Calling a National Crisis


Nealy, Michelle J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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There are an estimated 1.5 million Black men in prison and another 3.5 million on probation. Black males make up more than 70 percent of the total prison population, even though they make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population.

The alarming incarceration rates of Black men is not a new phenomenon, but one that has reverberated in news headlines and scholarly reports for a decade. Impoverished living conditions coupled with the failures of public education in urban school districts, unemployment and a criminal justice system primed to incarcerate Black men have created a crippling symbiosis for thousands of Black men who find themselves locked up in America's jails and prisons.

A Common Thread

Demico Boothe, a 35-year-old Black man from Tennessee, can recount every day of his 12-year sentence spent mostly in a federal prison. The slave-like chains being the most memorable.

"I would watch the men emerge from the bus to enter the facility, 40 men chained together at the legs and shackled at the wrists. Often, I would count: 36 Black, two White, and one Hispanic. The next week: 35 Black, three Hispanic, two White," Boothe says.

A common thread among the Black male prisoners, according to Boothe, was their lack of education. "The majority of Black men in jail can barely read, and there are many who simply cannot. The lack of education and the level of ignorance among many of the men was striking," says Boothe, who released a book on Black male imprisonment last year entitled, Why So Many Black Men Are in Prison: A Comprehensive Account of How And Why the Prison Industry Has Become a Predatory Entity in the Lives of African-American Men (XLIbris Corp., 2006).

The lack of education plays an integral role in the cradle-to-prison pipeline. In inner cities across the country, more than half of all Black men do not finish high school, limiting their ability to find employment. In 2001, only 42.8 percent of Black male students graduated from high school compared with 70 percent of their White male counterparts and 56 percent of African-Americans overall.

In 2000, 65 percent of Black male high school dropouts in their twenties were jobless--that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, that percentage grew to 72.

Dr. Ronald Mincy, the Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice at Columbia University and author of Black Males LeftBehind, argues that steep declines in the demand for low-skilled labor and wages in the traditional labor market propelled many young Black men to abandon the traditional labor market and pursue drug-related ventures. "With the exception of those who go on to college, most men today earn less than their fathers," says Mincy.

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The product of a low-income household, Boothe, a high school graduate, had college ambitions. While attending a local vocational school, Boothe sold crack cocaine as a side job. At the age of 18, he was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Like thousands of young Black men during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boothe was caught up in changes in criminal justice policy made during that period to contain the crack cocaine epidemic.

A series of bills passed by lawmakers attached severe penalties to the possession of small amounts of crack cocaine. Most notably, the 100 to 1 sentencing ratio for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. One would have to possess 5,000 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence as someone who had 50 grams of crack cocaine.

"As a result of these policy changes, marginal drug dealers and users filled our state and federal prisons," Mincy says.

Destabilized Communities

An August 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis revealed that one in three Black males born in 2001 would eventually spend time in prison.

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