Between 1980 and 2010, America's population of incarcerated adults and youth skyrocketed as a result of aggressive public policy responses to growing gang activity, gun violence, and drug trafficking in the United States.
During this era, African American and Latino young men and boys were particularly impacted by this historic shift in U.S. criminal justice. America is now the world's largest warehouser of prison inmates.
Black and Brown young men have been disproportionately targeted, apprehended, tried, sentenced, and incarcerated as a byproduct of America's draconian approach to justice over recent decades.
According to a 2015 report of the Sentencing Project, "Nearly 60 percent of middle-aged African American men without a high school degree have served time in prison. And while blacks and Latinos together comprise 30 percent of the general population, they account for 58 percent of prisoners."
Recent research on the issues additionally reveals that young men of color are more likely to serve prison time and to receive harsher sentences for the same or similar crimes compared to their white counterparts.
These trends and facts have proven true throughout our recent history irrespective of local or national crime rates. That is to say that even when crime has fallen, incarceration rates for Black and Brown Americans have remained fairly high and constant.
Recent tragedies involving highly questionable police shootings of Black Americans in multiple cities across the nation have surfaced high tensions in community after community as a result of racial profiling and often over-aggressive policing.
While such evidently extreme police practices have been focused overwhelmingly on African American young men, Latinos are also heavily implicated in all of this. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center report by Mark Hugo López and Michael Light: "The total number of offenders sentenced in federal courts more than doubled from 1991 to 2007. During this period, the number of sentenced offenders who were Hispanic nearly quadrupled and accounted for more than half (54%) of the growth in the total number of sentenced offenders."
The increased incidence of Black and Latino young males being targeted by our police and criminal justice system, often with disturbing outcomes, poses a major problem for our nation. No one condones criminal activity, some of which clearly does emerge from men and communities of color. But, the growing racialization and the increasingly punitive nature of criminal and corrections policies besetting Black and Brown communities has serious implications for the future of American democratic integrity, social harmony, and global competitiveness.
Experts estimate that it now costs taxpayers some $75 billion annually to support prisoners in detention. But the correlation between warehousing now more than 2 million incarcerated individuals in detention facilities and diminishing crime rates has been negligible. Crime rates have surely fallen in recent years; yet the conviction of Black and Brown young men for serious offenses has remained fairly steady notwithstanding.
A recent series of books that I have co-edited with my colleague Frank de Jesús Acosta highlights a better set of options for America, particularly as the population of young men of color--and especially Latinos--is projected to soar in the decades to come. The book series, published under the theme of "Overcoming Disparity," speaks from a Latino and Native American community perspective to the possibility of managing minority community crime and conflict much more productively. We suggest doing so by drawing on the lessons of spirituality, art, history, and culture to motivate Latinos and other young men of color to achieve their highest, rather than their lowest, potentialities.
Published by Arte Público Press at the University of Houston, the books in the "Overcoming Disparity" Series--Latino Young Men and Boys in Search of Justice and Overcoming Disparity: Profiles in Best Practice, are being released this summer to provide firsthand insights into the educational and social enterprise modalities of groups like the Los Angeles-based National Compadres Network's National Latino Fatherhood and Family Program, La Plazita Institute of Albuquerque, NM, and Barrios Unidos of Santa Cruz, CA.
Over recent years, these groups and others like them have shown the redemptive and socially productive powers of alternative healing methods that have led the most hardened gang members and criminals of Latino background all across our nation to find productive alternatives to crime and violence.
In places where these efforts have been successfully advanced, law enforcement officials in each instance have found the results to be positive and worthy of official encouragement.
As our nation teeters on the cusp of renewed social and racial unrest--much of it related to frayed police-community relations--African American, Latino and other male youths of color who are disproportionately represented in America's criminal justice system have constructive alternatives and solutions to offer. Many ideas along these lines are presented in the Overcoming Disparity book series.
I urge all of my readers and followers to get a copy of these works and to read them with an eye to action. By improving, expanding, and scaling these efforts all Americans stand to be better off.
To be sure, America is a nation of laws and maintaining the peace requires a strong and well supported law enforcement community. But investing in the ways of peace through community engagement, education, and awareness building are also vital investments in maintaining calm across our nation. Indeed, new means of advancing the common good in these connections are more needed than ever; and it turns out many of the answers, not surprisingly, lie within the very communities too many non-minority Americans still consider to be at the center of the problem.
- - -
Henry A. J. Ramos is a social commentator and former chief executive officer of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, an economic justice think-and-do tank based in Oakland, CA.