Inequality of Opportunity following Incarceration

*I have Chicago-style citations in my essay, they just will not show up on WordPress. If this is a problem, I can distribute a written copy?

Discrimination towards racial minority communities in the United States is in part the fault of the legal justice system. Certain elements of the system target African Americans, Latinos, and other peoples of color, resulting in a profoundly large number of convictions among individuals in these communities. This issue has an appalling effect on people of color living in areas with highly concentrated arrest records, considering most are only found guilty of minor crimes. In today’s state prisons, there are drastically unwarranted racial disparities that can only be the cause of a deep structural racism in both policy and action. The excessive level of incarceration in the United States through a biased, broken legal system that further marginalizes individuals of color, contributes to severe socio-economic inequality, owing to a lack of opportunity following time in prison.

The proportion of people of color that are incarcerated during their lifetime far exceeds the proportion of white people, contributing to the marginalization of racial minority communities. U.S. Census and Bureau of Justice Statistics find that African Americans are incarcerated 5.1 times the rate of white people and Latinos are incarcerated 1.4 times the rate of white people. However, much of this is considered unwarranted arrest, or crime that was specifically targeted by police for reasons such as where individuals live or their racial identity. Research shows that in sentencing for the most violent crimes, baseless racial disparity in prison is minor, yet for less serious crimes, “the proportion of unwarranted racial disparity increases”. For example, in drug-related arrest, research shows that although only 13% of drug users and sellers are African American, 17% are Latino, and 65% are white, a near 50% of those imprisoned for drug crimes are people of color. When people of color, living in communities defined by high crime rates, are sentenced to jail time at higher rates than that of white people, society is determining their fate: these communities are being disadvantaged socially and economically in the United States.

One reason for great racial disparity in state prisons is policy regarding minor crime. The term ‘mass incarceration’ began with policy implemented since 1973, “which had a disparate impact on people of color, especially African Americans”. One example of this type of policy was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Discrimination ensued for aspects of the act, such as the requirement of those in possession of one gram of crack cocaine to be sentenced for the same number of years as those found in possession of at least one hundred grams of powdered cocaine. At the time, crack was notoriously found in majority African American neighborhoods, while powdered cocaine was consistent with majority white neighborhoods. Another example is the  policy coined “stop, question, frisk.” In New York City, this process of stopping and inspecting individuals on the street based upon ‘suspicious behavior’ has “led to unnecessary criminal records for thousands. New York’s policy was ruled unconstitutional in 2013”. Policy in the United States has been a major driver in marginalizing people of color.

Another reason for racial disparity in the prison system is a discriminatory perception of African Americans and Latinos, resulting from bias and stereotype. Within the system itself, research shows that “people of color are frequently given harsher sanctions because they are perceived as imposing a greater threat to public safety and are therefore deserving of greater social control and punishment”. Additionally, if African Americans are being incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times that of whites, the rest of society, engaged through the media, will internalize that and transform it into an association between blackness and criminality. Perceptions of crime are shaped almost entirely by news and the media. However, reporting typically focuses on serious crimes “and those committed by people of color, especially black-on-white violent crime”. Implicit bias towards racial minorities increases both the severity of sentencing and the quantity of minority individuals arrested and incarcerated.

A third reason for disparity among racial minority groups in prison is a proclivity towards crime for those who grow up in communities defined by poverty. People of color  “comprise a disproportionate share of those living poverty-stricken neighborhoods and communities where a range of socio-economic vulnerabilities contribute to higher rates of crime”. Thus, when people are born into financial instability, unemployment, and sometimes volatile family life, each of which is associated with poverty, young people are more prone to become involved in illegal activity. Thus, marginalization through mass incarceration of African-American and Latino individuals may actually produce more crime. The continual discriminatory treatment of racial minorities in America creates even more poverty for their communities, encouraging even greater crime.

Incarceration inevitably results in an inequality of opportunity, widespread among minority communities where crime rates are widespread. Incarceration is considered “a key life event that triggers a cumulative spiral of disadvantage”. The disruption of social and economic advancement is linked to three issues associated with serving jail time. The first is simply the stigma of having a criminal record, which signals to employers that workers are untrustworthy or incapable of functioning in normal society. Another reason for inequality of opportunity is the depletion of job skills while incarcerated. Time in prison “may exacerbate pre-existing mental or physical illnesses. Furthermore, behaviors that are adaptive for survival in prison are likely to be inconsistent with work routines on the outside”. Finally, employment networks for referral and connection to jobs are limited for ex-inmates. There is little access to internships and apprenticeships following time served which leaves little room for advancement. And since minority communities are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates, this inequality of opportunity further ostracizes people of color living in poverty both socially and economically.

This inequality of opportunity further divides the advantaged white community from the more racially diverse poor, as the criminal justice system deepens the socio-economic divide. A study exploring the lives of white, African-American, and Latino men after imprisonment shows that throughout an incarcerated individual’s life, the level of wage-growth is comparatively diminished. Among all men in the experiment, the level of wage growth was reduced by 30% as opposed to a man with the same level of education who had never been convicted. However, if dividing the three groups, it was clear that the “effect of incarceration on inequality is twice as large for blacks and Hispanics”. Thus, when released from prison, racial minorities have even less of a chance for economic freedom and growth than an already disadvantaged white man.

The ways in which the United States arrests and convicts its citizens are creating widespread inequality. The reasons why people of color are being convicted at rates much higher than that of whites, (policy, implicit bias, and a proclivity towards crime for those living in poverty) are deepening a gap between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the privileged and the disadvantaged. The criminal justice system is encouraging socio-economic inequality that is drastically unwarranted. Mass incarceration is becoming an extremely precarious issue in the United States for its singling out specific racial minority groups, only to throw them back into normal society without any means to advance. This system, however, is only creating more criminality, as it advances incarcerated individuals’ poverty, one of the greatest sources of crime.

Works Cited

Crutchfield, Robert D, and Gregory A Weeks. “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color.” Issues in Science and Technology, University of Texas, 2015.

Nellis, Ashley. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.” The Sentencing Project, 2016, pp. 1–18.

Walsh, Colleen. “The Costs of Inequality: Goal Is Justice, but Reality Is Unfairness.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 1 Mar. 2016.

Western, Bruce. The Impact of Incarceration on Wage Mobility and Inequality. Princeton

University, 2002.


February 5, 2018