- Faith & Family
Black men and youth in the U.S. are under siege — there are more in prisons, jails and youth facilities at 1.2 million than there were slaves in 1850. That’s from a national perspective. But taking a closer look at things here in Florida, the situation is even more disconcerting. According to award-winning author and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” the real tragedy is that once a person is labeled a felon, they face lifelong “discrimination, exclusion and social contempt.”
“When you are a felon, even for a minor, non-violent drug crime, the old forms of discrimination — employment, housing, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal,” she said. “Black men in particular are being returned to a status not unlike the one we had supposedly left behind. Millions of poor folks of color are being swept into the criminal justice system while whites who commit similar crimes tend to get slaps on the wrist.”
The War on Drugs: A means to locking up Black youth
Alexander points to the War on Drugs as the primary reason why prison numbers have exploded. In the 1970s there were 300,00 people in U.S. jails and prisons. In 2000 there were over two million. She says the so-called “war” is based on the myth that Blacks lead this county in committing crimes — something that has been documented as false.
“We have a war on poor communities of color and have made it our business to round up people for relatively minor drug crimes,” she said. “Studies show that Blacks are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites. Still we lock up an 18-year-old boy who is found with marijuana and put him in a literal cage with hardened criminals. When he’s released he has a felony record. What have we then created? A person who finds it virtually impossible to work in the legal job market, who cannot get financial aid for college and who is now greater threat to his own community than he was at the time of his unfortunate arrest. Meanwhile, Black leaders remain in denial. It was the research that went into my book that opened my eyes. I want others to wake up too.”
Marlon Hill, 40, a Miami-based attorney and partner of the firm delancyhill, says more resources are needed to keep the numbers of Black youth being funneled off to prison from rising.
“As a country, we have turned a blind eye to this crisis —it’s not a priority to us,” he said. “There are limited resources for prevention and intervention for at-risk Black youth. Our community has to take some responsibility for the care, nurturing and mentoring of our Black youth — their safety and guidance is critical to the sustainability of families and communities-at-large. One things is certain – if we continue to ignore this crisis we will all pay the price.”
Florida places more emphasis on prison than education
No matter what source you use, statistics nationwide indicate that the U.S. spends more money to incarcerate an inmate in prison than we do to educate students in our public schools. California, for example, pays an average of $47,000 per year for each inmate. The average cost per prison inmate is $22,600 compared to $9,644 per student. Liberty City-born Larry Handfield, now a prominent attorney, says we are putting our resources in the wrong places.
“Education was my way of making a better life and avoiding early death or prison,” he said. “Florida is the only state that automatically denies restoration of rights to ex-felons. We are the only state that punishes people by convicting them and then stripping them of all rights, even if no violent crime has been committed. This is definitely Jim Crow — it’s must a more sophisticated form. When Rick Scott was elected as governor, the first thing he did was to eliminate automatic restoration of rights, in effect ruining many young Blacks lives forever.”
Illinois Congressman Danny K. Davis says he is tired of seeing young Blacks filling jail cells.
“Blacks are disproportionately represented in our prison system and that’s clearly by design,” he said. “I have been fighting this battle for over a decade. We are just beginning to make progress and getting society to look at what we have created. But Blacks have to keep the discussion going and being advocates for those who have no voice. This fight is far from over.”
By D. Kevin McNeir