The Myth of Mass Incarceration
Friday, May 25, 2018
In early April, I traveled to Memphis, TN to attend the MLK50 Conference. Timed to coincide with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was an emotional, memorable – and even transformational – trip for me.
By far, the highlight was touring the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the very site of Dr. King’s assassination. I can’t begin to tell you how informational and sobering the tour was. The many exhibits documented everything from the abomination known as slavery, through the Abolitionist movement, to the modern Civil Rights movement spearheaded by Dr. King.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders, Bloody Sunday and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Rosa Park and John Lewis, the March on Washington culminating in King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech – all of them were covered in great detail. So were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Special attention was given to the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, the Poor People’s Campaign, and Dr. King’s last sermon at Mason Temple, dubbed “The Mountaintop Speech”.
And yet, nothing quite prepared me for the final leg of the tour, which found me standing just a few feet from the balcony outside Room 306 where Dr. King was gunned down. Truly, it was one of the most solemn moments of my entire life.
Across the street from the motel stands the boarding house from where an escaped prisoner and coward by the name of James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. While in Memphis, I bought a book about the manhunt to capture Ray, which I have already finished. I also purchased and devoured a book about the final year of Dr. King’s life, “The Death of a King”; as well as John Lewis’ autobiography, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement”.
Compared to the museum tour, the actual conference was anticlimactic. Some of the speakers were good and a few of them were excellent. But I was disturbed by the litany of blame that was continuously laid at the feet of white evangelicals by the more radical speakers. After all, the theme of the conference was supposed to be, “Where do we go from here?” which was the forward-thinking title of Dr. King’s final book.
One phrase in particular resonated over and over throughout the convention center, and it bothered me every time it was repeated: “mass incarceration”.
There is irrefutable proof that minorities, especially Blacks, comprise a far greater percentage of America’s jail and prison population than their share of the general population. Again, that is the undeniable truth. However, what is open to discussion and debate is the cause of such a disparity.
The conference speakers who cited “mass incarceration” statistics believe that Blacks are purposely targeted by law enforcement officers and unfairly sentenced by the judicial system. They blame the discrepancy between general population and prison population figures for minorities on one factor and one factor alone: racism.
Here is where – and why – I disagree with them.
First, no one is “mass incarcerated” unless we are talking about Jews in Nazi Germany or Japanese-Americans during World War II. Instead, people are generally tried, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated one at a time in the United States.
Second, prosecuting attorneys need to convince a judge or a jury of the guilt of each and every defendant before they are sentenced. And even then, judges are usually bound by predetermined sentencing guidelines.
So, why are minorities more heavily represented in our criminal justice system? Simply because they commit more crimes, especially violent ones. And why do they commit more crimes? Because of the breakdown of the minority family. And why are minority families breaking down so precipitously? Because of absentee dads and an overall lack of positive male role models.
I don’t make those statements lightly, because I know that they are not politically correct and may generate some untoward criticism aimed at me. However, having dedicated 31 years of my life to prison ministry – and having ministered to hundreds of thousands of mostly minority men, women and teens in correctional institutions across North America and Africa – I think I have earned the right to speak freely and honestly about the culture of crime that so negatively affects minority communities.
In addition to my three decades of prison ministry, I have worked diligently to promote the cause of racial reconciliation for many years, hosting multiple conferences and working hands-on with at-risk youth of every creed and color. My care, concern, and love for Blacks, Latinos, Hispanics and other racial and ethnic minorities should be unquestioned – which is why I refuse to place band aid after band aid on this festering problem.
The unvarnished truth of the matter is that out-of-wedlock birth is the leading predictor of future incarceration and lifelong poverty… period. That direct connection has been evident since then assistant Labor secretary (and later, Democrat senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan first brought it to the nation’s attention in the 1960's. Tragically, out-of-wedlock births presently account for 73% of all Black births; 54% for Hispanics; 26% for Caucasians; and 17% for Asians.
Even some honest liberal-leaning commentators agree that out-of-wedlock births and absentee dads are wreaking havoc in minority communities. Here is what CNN’s Don Lemon, an African-American, said in 2013 after the George Zimmerman trial.
“If you really want to fix the problem, here’s just five things that you should think about doing. The No. 1 item on that list – and probably the most important – is out-of-wedlock births. Just because you can have a baby, it doesn’t mean you should. Especially without planning for one or getting married first. More than 72% of children in the African-American community are born out of wedlock. That means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train right to prison and the cycle continues.”
David Popenoe, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, concurs. "Father absence is a major force lying behind many of the attention-grabbing issues that dominate news: crime and delinquency, premature sexuality, and out-of-wedlock teen births, deteriorating educational achievement, depression, substance abuse, and alienation among teenagers, and the growing number of women and children in poverty."
And here is how author David Horowitz put it in 2012. “The simple truth of the matter is that children raised in fatherless homes are far more likely to grow up poor and to eventually engage in criminal behavior, than their peers who are raised in two-parent homes.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics seems to support Horowitz’s conclusions about the correlation between fatherless homes and criminal behavior. In 2010, Blacks (approximately 13% of the U.S. population) accounted for 48.7% of all arrests for homicide, 31.8% of arrests for forcible rape, 33.5% of arrests for aggravated assault, and 55% of arrests for robbery.
Likewise, an independent study conducted by the Heritage Foundation indicated that youngsters raised by single parents, as compared to those who grow up in intact married homes, are more likely to be physically abused; to be treated for emotional and behavioral disorders; to smoke, drink, and use drugs; to perform poorly in school; to be suspended or expelled from school; to drop out of high school; to behave aggressively and violently; to be arrested for a juvenile crime; to serve jail time before age 30; and to experience poverty as adults.
Finally, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, 60% of rapists, 72% of adolescent murderers, and 70% of long-term prison inmates are men who grew up in fatherless homes.
So, what is the answer to this mounting problem? Well, one thing I know for sure is that simply throwing more money at the problem isn’t the answer. From 1965, the beginning of LBJ’s “Great Society”, to 2008, nearly $16 trillion of taxpayer money was spent on means-tested welfare programs for the poor. Unfortunately, many of these programs – including food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, day care and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – penalized married families. In fact, a study by the Cato Institute found that “welfare programs for the poor incentivize the very behaviors that are most likely to perpetuate poverty.” And, may I add, the very behaviors that are most likely to lead to criminal activity, too.
Admittedly, there is no magic bullet that will end the rampant crime in America that has resulted in a tripling of our prison population since 1980. However, supporting – and yes, incentivizing marriage instead of subsidizing out-of-wedlock births – would be a great start.
But unless and until fathers of every race and ethnicity start taking their responsibilities more seriously, it will remain an uphill battle. One that becomes increasingly steep every time the race or perennial victim cards are played in lieu of seeking actual solutions.
The slogan of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was both simple and profound: “I am a man!” Well, gentlemen, it’s about time we started acting like one by protecting and providing for our families, and staying married to the mother of our children.