Prison Systems Breed Future Violence
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8, 2010) carried a report about the decreasing violent crime rate across the country. The report, based on FBI statistics, said all major violent crimes—homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault—have been decreasing since 2007. Homicides decreased by 4.4 percent between 2007 and 2008, and by 10 percent during the first six months of 2009. Major cities like Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles recorded decreases in homicides levels not seen since the 1960s.
The Journal article, written by Tamara Audi and Gary Fields, cited nationally-acclaimed criminal justice experts like James Alan Fox who believe the violent crime decreases are tied to the aging U.S. population. “The graying of America is a significant factor,” the Lipman Professor of Criminal Justice at Northwestern University in Boston told the Journal. “The largest and fastest growing segment of the population is people over 50. People over 50 also happen to be the age group that is the least likely to commit crimes. As the group grows, crime rates do decline.”
Professor Fox also informed the Journal that the “common assumption that crime goes up during a recession” is erroneous. The professor pointed to “historic data” which shows there is little correlation between economic conditions and violent crime.
With all due respect to Professor Fox’s expertise, the nation should view the “good news” of a decreasing violent crime rate with certain trepidation. The Associated Press recently carried a report about the findings of a U.S. Justice Department study showing that 12 percent of youths held in state-run, privately-run, or local facilities are victims of some form of sexual abuse during their incarceration. Currently, there are close to 27,000 juveniles held in such facilities nationwide. Approximately 9,000 of these juveniles participated in the Justice Department survey which was conducted by a Rockville, Maryland company called Westat between June 2008 and April 2009.
“Many of these [juveniles] are already the most vulnerable and traumatized youth from all our communities and they’re placed in custody because they’re considered to be a danger,” Linda McFarland, Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention (a group that fights sexual abuse of those incarcerated), told AP. “If sexually abused in those very institutions that are suppose to help them prepare for life in the community, then it’s just an incredible travesty.”
The U.S. Justice Department reports that the nation’s incarceration rate continues to increase to the point that five percent of the American male population is now in a correctional facility—and almost half of them are there for committing a violent crime. Two years ago the Justice Department reported that half of all people murdered in this country each year are black. The Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that between 2001 and 2005 nine out of ten black murder victims were killed by other blacks with three of four of them being killed with a gun.
“Black victimization is a real problem, and it’s often black on black,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo who studies crime trends, told the Washington Post in 2007. “That aspect has to be brought into any attempt to address the crime problem, and the community itself must be called into the process.”
The BJS study found that in 2005 alone blacks were victims of an estimated 8,000 homicides and 805,000 other violent crimes, including rape and aggravated assault. At that rate, nearly 56,000 blacks were killed on American soil over the last seven years compared to the more than 5,000 American troops killed during combat on Iraqi soil during the same period. That’s a sobering reality by any measure.
What is even more sobering is the fact that, according to other Justice Department studies, homicide is now the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34 in this country. Today there are nearly one million black men incarcerated in the nation’s prison system—a staggering statistic reflecting that black men make up 49 percent of those in prison while blacks comprise only 13 percent of the national population. In 1995 alone 16 percent of black men in their 20s who did not attend college were in an American jail or prison.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2003 reported that nearly 95 percent of all those incarcerated in American prisons will return to society. They will bring a lot of baggage with them back into society: memories of being sexually abused (more than 60,000 inmates are victims of violent sexual abuse each year), experiences of having to kill or be killed, and a host of psychotic disorders. Texas prison and political officials have recently been patting themselves on the back about the state’s reduced incarceration rate, attributing the decline to certain kinds of “rehabilitation” programs. But a prison system that cannot keep cell phones and guns out of the hands of its inmates; that cannot keep its staff from having sex with its adult inmates; and that cannot keep its juvenile staffers from abusing the teenage inmates under their supervision cannot really lay any legitimate claim to “rehabilitation.”
High unemployment rates while perhaps not increasing the rate of violent crime will ensure a continued steady growth of the nation’s incarceration rate. In fact, there are some indications (according to Michigan corrections officials) that some in the ranks of the unemployed are committing crimes just to get in prison where they will have “three hots and a cot” along with minimum health care. The problem is that along with the “hots and a cot” comes a far greater risk of violent victimization and official abuse. Prison is not really the best place to recoup from the economic downturn.
Prisons guarantee that violence will always be a growth industry in America. Its perverse cultural values, its violent ethic, its entrenched gun mentality that “I’d rather the Man catch me with it than my enemy catch me without it,” and its brutal inclination to “take and rape” have infected at least half of the 95 percent who will return to society—and that infection (which is passed along to the young sons, brothers, nephews, and cousins of those incarcerated) will result in continued violence in America.
While we are thankful that the violent crime rate has dropped in recent years, we are reluctant to celebrate because we know ominous clouds are forming behind today’s passing sunshine. Harsh economic woes are forcing states to accelerate the reduction of the prison populations, and while many of those released will be non-violent offenders who never should have been locked up to begin with, many others will be released carrying heavy emotional and psychological baggage that will harm society. Even in the best economic times, society is either unwilling or incapable of changing its violent prison systems that do far more harm than correction—and society inevitably pays the staggering human costs because of it.
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair