How the systems of crime and punishment harm and impoverish communities

How the systems of crime and punishment harm and impoverish communities
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 4:51 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 27, 2022 at 9:58 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The problems of the United States’ criminal system are no secret.

Per the Prison Policy Initiative, the country incarcerates people at far higher rates than other countries with a total of about 1.9 million people in custody. The majority of people in local jails have not been convicted of a crime: there are about 547,000 people in local jails, and people are sent to jail 10 million times each year.

Note that unless otherwise specified, prison statistics are measured based on a sample day and not the total number of people moved in and out of prison over the entire year.

Recidivism rates are also high. A government study found that 82% of people released from state prisons were arrested again within 10 years of their release.

Some states appear to have reduced recidivism rates but those numbers can be misleading when states record the data differently. Some just track reincarceration while others also track rearrests and reconvictions.

“I know what it feels like - to feel like I ain’t never coming home from a sentence that I feel like I shouldn’t have been in prison for. That’s why I do what I do,” Daquan Peters said.

Peters was sentenced for charges of crack cocaine possession before the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which changed the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1. The ACLU explains that this refers to the amount of powder cocaine vs amount of crack cocaine that is necessary to trigger mandatory minimum prison sentences: 100 grams of powder cocaine and one gram of crack cocaine had the same minimum sentence. Now that ratio is 18:1, but the ACLU and research has noted that the current policy still maintains the sentencing disparities.

“I can’t get those 12 and a half years back. You took that from me … You did wrong; and you want me to forgive you for what you did to me … but you can’t forgive me for committing a crime?” said Peters.

Peters used to work with Leading into New Communities at their residential reentry program. Now, he works as the New Hanover County Second Chance Alliance Coordinator assisting and advocating for justice-involved individuals.

Black people are still over five times more likely to be imprisoned than white people (Pew Research). Despite the fact that rates of drug use and sales for Black people and white people are similar, Black people are dramatically more likely to be criminalized for this fact, per the Drug Policy Alliance, the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Drug Issues.

On an average day in 1980, 19,000 people nationwide were in prison for drug offenses. In 2019, 171,000 people daily were in prison for drug offenses, per the Journal of Drug Issues with stats from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The drug epidemic is indifferent; the National Center for Health Statistics recorded drug overdose rates increasing from 3.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 21.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2019.

“[A criminal record] can create barriers to meaningful opportunities. These meaningful opportunities is education, social services, housing, employment,” said Peters.

Around 1.6 million North Carolinians have a criminal record. Operational licenses, affordable housing, employers and others have been found to discriminate against those with criminal records. Collateral consequences are far reaching and, in the long run, seriously hurt the ability of communities to thrive, research shows. Kimberly Cook works as a professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and has written books on wrongful convictions and life after death row.

“Incarceration in itself creates trauma,” said Cook. “When someone is put into prison, they’re facing a real, genuine fear of potential annihilation. Either by other people who are also locked up, or by guards who might be causing them harm.”

Cook notes the ways in which smaller scale crimes are considered disproportionately. Pharmaceutical companies encouraged the sale of dangerous drugs and played a significant part in the opioid epidemic that continues to kill more people every year. As she explains, these sorts of “white collar crimes” hurt far more people with far fewer consequences.

Peters highlights the importance of building on people’s strengths: a major focus of LINC’s programs. Impoverished, crime-filled communities aren’t that way by coincidence or because those communities are inevitable. They’re caused by overly severe punishments for crime, by the restrictions placed on people after they come out of jail and by segregation that leaves impoverished communities with the worst schools.

Peters asks how people can possibly be expected to know how to make a life outside of crime when nobody will give them those resources or that training. LINC helps formerly incarcerated people, but their residential re-entry program currently only takes a maximum of 45 people.

But that’s just a drop in the bucket when an average of 67,000 people are incarcerated in North Carolina on a given day, and it isn’t enough to help the 81,000 on probation and 12,000 on parole (Prison Policy).

“It’s gonna take us. It’s gonna take the leaders. It’s gonna take directly-impacted people who know what the pain feels like [when] the system continues to have they foot on our neck. We’ve been George Floyd, we’ve been Brianna Taylor, we’ve been all of these people. Our whole entire system in America shows and proves that you didn’t want us to rise above what you thought was three fifths of a human,” said Peters.

As Cook put it, admitting the cliché, “hurt people hurt people.” Research shows communities of Black and brown people are overpoliced, impoverished and given harsher sentences that ripple out to touch the lives of every person who knows those 160,000 North Carolinians in the criminal system.

Cook stresses the need for trauma-informed care. Her conclusion comes from her years of research and conversations with death row survivors and people in women’s prisons. To paraphrase, people need treatment and resources that enable them to live a happier life without resorting to crime. Peters supports LiNC and reentry programs because while therapy is helpful and often essential, it is no substitute for a good paying job, a place to live and food to eat.

Progress is possible: thanks to a lawsuit by the Community Success Initiative, Justice Served NC and the North Carolina NAACP, felons are no longer banned from voting after they are released from prison. The rule prevented around 55,000 North Carolinians from voting.

But non-profits on tight budgets and post-release programs can only do so much. Local, state and national governments have the power to decrease the harshness of sentences, reduce the overbearing probation and parole systems that put people back in prison for technical violations and other issues.

Peters and Cook both emphasize the importance of building communities back up: giving them both the resources, the education and the tools to build better lives outside of crime. If someone sells drugs because they can’t find another way out of poverty, then arresting them and sending them back several years later with even more problems and less time isn’t a recipe for success. Formerly incarcerated people are more than twice as likely to lack even a high school diploma. Far fewer ever get college degrees.

“If you want us to do right, you do right. And we’re going to continue to hold those that are in power accountable,” Peters said.

Copyright 2022 WECT. All rights reserved.

Update (9/27/2022): “100 grams of crack cocaine and one gram of powder cocaine” was amended to read “100 grams of powder cocaine and one gram of crack cocaine”