Experts explore race, inequality, incarceration in America

At the end of a day filled with somber presentations about America's sprawling prison system, the disproportionate number of poor, minority male inmates and the wide-reaching effects of mass incarceration on U.S. society, sociologist Chris Uggen from the University of Minnesota offered a sliver of optimism.

This month, Florida made it possible for about 600,000 ex-felons to get their civil rights restored, Uggen noted at the April 11 conference, dubbed an "intellectual summit" on race, inequality and incarceration. On April 5, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and the state clemency board decided that officials could automatically begin the rights-restoration process for felons finishing their sentences. Previously, in a process that could take years, ex-felons had to wait for a board hearing to request restoration of their civil rights, including the right to vote, no matter how long they had been out of prison. As a result, Kentucky and Virginia are the only remaining states that require ex-felons to take such action. Other states have waiting periods before restoration, but most restore rights automatically when felons complete their sentences.

"I tell you, when Florida falls, the door is off the hinges," Uggen said. "We're seeing a change in the cultural image of felons around this issue of voting."

Uggen joined Stanford scholars and experts from around the country to discuss the causes, meanings and effects of racial disproportion in America's criminal justice system. The Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality co-sponsored the all-day event, which attracted students, academics and activists. Stanford speakers included sociology Professor Lawrence Bobo, psychology Associate Professor Jennifer Eberhardt and law Professor Robert Weisberg.

In a keynote address, Theodore Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said American society has created a criminal justice system in which the term "criminal justice" is oxymoronic. "Our nation's criminal justice policies are characterized by judicially sanctioned discrimination, arbitrary punishments and the perpetual ostracization of ex-offenders—civil death," he said.

As Glenn Loury of Brown University noted during the recent 2007 Tanner Lectures at Stanford, America has 5 percent of the world's population but it incarcerates 25 percent of the world's 9 million prison inmates—far more than any other country. Furthermore, the imprisoned population is disproportionately made up of poorly educated men with black or brown skin. African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population but 44 percent of those incarcerated, Shaw said. In 2000, one of every nine young black males was imprisoned, compared with three of 200 young white men. There is a nearly three-fifths chance that a black male high school dropout born between 1965 and 1969 will have gone to prison or jail at least once before turning 35. In the United States, two-thirds of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, mostly for dealing drugs.

Referring to such statistics, Shaw blasted America's "insane war on drugs."

"I've come to the conclusion that the so-called cure has become worse than the disease," he said. "The war on drugs is a war on black and brown people. While the rate of violent crime has dropped, the war on drugs has come to define the relationship between law enforcement and the black community, almost in its totality." In 1986, Shaw said, the average federal sentence for African Americans convicted of drug violations was 11 percent higher than for white offenders. By 1990, after passage of mandatory sentencing laws, the average federal sentence for blacks convicted of drug offenses was 49 percent higher than for whites, he said.

"I am not soft on crime, but my belief is that we have to revisit this drug policy," Shaw said. "I think we need to decriminalize a lot of drug violations. We should draw a line between major dealers and users. There should be something between complete legalization and complete decriminalization."

Shaw also criticized felon disenfranchisement, which he characterized as civil death. "We stand as an outlier to the rest of the world," he said. "I've been to Israel, Canada, most European countries—they don't strip people of the right to vote when they are incarcerated. The policies we have adopted are insane and unfair. The whole bottom line is the continued saliency of race and racism."

During the Tanner Lectures, Stanford law Professor Pam Karlan, a discussant, focused on how voter disenfranchisement has affected the potential African American electorate. In remarks made April 5 just before the decision in Florida was announced, she said, "The actual impact of felon disenfranchisement is greater than at any point in our history. Current laws disenfranchise approximately 3.9 million voting-age citizens, of whom roughly 1.4 million have completed their sentences. When disqualified citizens on probation or parole are added to those who have completed their sentences, nearly three-quarters of the excluded are not in prison."

The potential effects of this massive exclusion were driven home by the close 2000 presidential race in Florida, Karlan said at the Tanner Lectures. Until the April 5 decision, Florida disenfranchised more people than any other state—about 827,000 people. Of those, slightly more than 600,000 people had completed their sentences and were entirely discharged from the criminal justice system. In 2000, Karlan said, about 10.5 percent of the state's adult black population was disenfranchised, compared with 4.4. percent of the non-black population. "George Bush ostensibly won the state by 530-something votes," she said. Citing a recent study by Uggen and Jeff Manza, a sociologist at Northwestern University, Karlan said that if ex-offenders had been permitted to vote "at the same rate as their equally poor and badly educated but not convicted compatriots," Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would have carried Florida by more than 31,000 votes.

Although public stigma attached to ex-felons persists, Uggen was buoyed during last week's conference by Florida's decision to end "civil death" for most of its former inmates. "In the clash between the desire to punish and our growing belief and faith in civil rights and the right to vote, the belief in civil rights is trumping the desire to punish," he said. "The meta-message here is if we can see felons as citizens, we're less likely to see them as monsters."

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