Losing One Generation After Another: The Overincarceration of African American and Latino Young Men Is a National Scandal
The overincarceration of African American and Latino young men is a national scandal. Low-income young men of color—especially those growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods—are fated under current circumstances to end up in prison in percentages that far exceed their share of the population. We are losing generation after generation.
Check the boxes: father in and out of prison or whereabouts unknown or never known. Mother struggling to find steady work and often not succeeding. Drugs or alcohol in the parental picture somewhere. Violence in the home. Early childhood inattention or worse. Terrible schools. No caring adult other than the mother or grandmother in the boy’s life. Street culture that valorizes defiance and denigrates educational achievement. Police all too willing to arrest.
Result: time in prison, likely fathering children and not marrying the mother, and difficulty in finding work for the rest of his life. Poverty in childhood makes these young men strong candidates for getting into trouble with the law in the first place, and time in prison makes them even stronger candidates for lives of poverty and disenfranchisement from the democratic process, pushing the arithmetic of politics to the right and shrinking the constituency for support of low-income communities.
Not all boxes apply to each young man, of course, but enough do. Whether the underlying facts are George W. Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which brilliantly describes the targeting of young black men in the criminal justice system—and both ideas are operative—the situation is truly dire. Comprehensive reform of the juvenile and criminal justice systems, including our misbegotten “war on drugs,” is a must.
Dire as it is, though, the cradle-to-prison pipeline is comparatively narrow. There is a wider pipeline yet. I call it the cradle-to-nowhere pipeline, and it is full of girls as well as boys. There are 804,100 youth and young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-nine) in prison or jail, and about 92.4 percent of them are men. But there are three million or more youth and young adults who are not in school and are out of work for a long time, most of whom will not spend time in jail or prison. (Andrew Sum of Northeastern University puts the number as high as 5.2 million.)