by David Henley, Leadership Louisville Class of 2014 —
When I learned that our next Leadership Louisville session would be about crime, corrections and the justice system, I began to think about what I already know. I know that as an African American male, I would hear a lot about African American males committing a majority of the crimes, being the majority of the males incarcerated in our jails and prisons and that the majority of African American males have a chance sometime in their life of having some contact with the criminal justice system. While Africa American males are a minority in the United States, they are the majority when it comes to crime, corrections and the justice system. But instead of going into the session with these preconceived, anecdotal notions, I felt an obligation as an African American male to see what the statistics really say.
As reported in the Huffington Post’s October 4, 2013 article entitled “1 in 3 Black Males Will Go To Prison in Their Lifetime, Report Warns,” one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males and one in every 17 white males, if current incarceration trends continue. These are among the many pieces of evidence cited by the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C,-based group that advocates for prison reform in a report on the staggering racial disparities that permeate the American criminal justice system. The report was submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Committee and argues that racial disparity pervades every stage of the United States criminal justice system, from arrest to trial to sentencing.
Closer to home, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights issued a report in 2010 that states while Whites comprise 88.3% of the state’s population and African Americans make up 7.5%, about 31% of the total Kentucky prison population is African American. Furthermore, Kentucky’s combined prison and jail incarceration rate for African Americans is 2,793 per 100,000 residents- a rate that is nearly five times the incarceration rate for Whites (561 per 100,000 residents). Kentucky’s high rate of incarceration of African Americans, in turn, results in a high rate of disenfranchisement. Consequently, one of every four African American adults in Kentucky cannot vote. This rate (23.7%) is nearly triple the national African American disenfranchisement rate (8.25%) or one of every twelve African Americans.
Even though the Human Rights numbers include both African American males and females, they are still alarming at best for African American males. What I wanted to hear at this session is how Kentucky is focused on this problem in the African American community. So, what did I learn?
I learned from the Louisville Chief of Police that he has a program focused on getting police officers into the community to build relationships with its residents and that this program recognizes that more emphasis needs to be placed on dealing with how behavioral health issues influence criminal behavior. I learned from the Director of Louisville Metro Department of Corrections about the dedication of the Louisville jail staff and the innovative detox program that has been instituted in the jail. I learned from a District Court Judge about the attempts she is making to get at the root of the problem with African American males that come before her to hopefully reduce the likelihood that these men will return to the criminal justice system. And, I learned from a local attorney about an innovative program focused on victim needs and offender responsibility for repairing harm. However, what I did not hear anyone talk about are Louisville programs and activities that focus on African American males.
These are all worthy programs and activities to deal with crime but something must be missing if Kentucky statistics regarding African American males continue to either remain at current levels or increase. Because what I saw on our tour of the Louisville Metro Jail, was just what the statistics state – African American males make up a majority of the jail population and the criminal justice system. In addition, while there exists admirable intentions of administrators and staff and some innovative programs such as a detox program, more needs to be done. Further, if African American males make up a majority of criminal problems, then more focus needs to be placed on African American males. No longer can we and the African American community in particular, ignore that the way to attack the criminal problem in the United States is by putting focus on African American males.
So, what can we do? Below are a few recommendations, all of which have been talked about before. Now it’s time to get them implemented.
- Reduce time served in prison.
- Eliminate the use of prison for parole or probation technical violations.
- Reduce the length of parole and probation supervision periods.
- Decriminalize or shorten sentences for “victimless” crimes, particularly those related to drug use and abuse.
- Provide transitional and permanent housing, education, vocational training and placement counseling, coaching and mentoring in and out of jail and prison.
- Provide incentives to businesses to hire individuals with a criminal record.
- Restore ex-prisoner voting and other rights.
- Engage African American community leaders and organizations to give presentations on this issue before the legislature and to get involved in various state and local crime-related programs.
- Develop new and support existing organizations and programs directed at African American boys.