Prison System in America

C. Mass Imprisonment and Voter Disenfranchisement

When the nation was founded in the late 1700s, the vast majority of people in the United States were ineligible to participate in democratic life. Excluded were women, blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities, as well as illiterates, poor people, and felons. Only white males were “citizens” with the right to vote. Over the course of 200 years, restrictions for all these categories have been lifted— save for those with felony convictions.

Today, some 5 million Americans are ineligible to vote as a result of a felony conviction in the 48 states and D.C. that employ disenfranchisement policies for varying degrees of felons and ex-felons. If there was any doubt about the effect of these laws, consider the 2000 presidential election in Florida. That election was decided by less than 1,000 votes in favor of George W. Bush, while an estimated 600,000 former offenders—people who had already completed their sentences—were ineligible to vote due to that state’s restrictive policies. One wonders who most former inmates would have supported.

While an estimated 2% to 3% of the national population is disenfranchised, the rate for black men is 13%, and in some states is well over 20%. When such high numbers of men in urban communities can’t vote, the voting power/efficacy of that whole community is reduced in relation to communities with low rates of incarceration. New evidence indicates that disenfranchisement effects go well beyond the legally disenfranchised population. Studies of voter turnout show that in the most restrictive states, voter turnout is lower, particularly among African Americans, and even among persons who themselves are not disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction. Voting is a civic duty, and a process engaged in with families and communities. Family members talk about elections at home, drive to polls together, and see their neighbors there. When a substantial number of people in a community are legally unable to vote, it is likely to dampen enthusiasm and attention among others as well. Forty years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, mass imprisonment and disenfranchisement results in a greater proportion of African American and other minority communities losing the right to vote each year.

D. Mass Imprisonment and State Budgets

Regarding the impact of mass imprisonment on state economies, specifically higher education, a recent report by Grassroots Leadership shows how massive spending on Mississippi prisons has siphoned funds from classrooms and students, leaving higher education appropriations stagnant and African Americans shouldering the burden. The report documents a startling shift in Mississippi budget priorities. In 1992, the state spent most of the discretionary portion of its budget on higher education. By 2002, the majority of discretionary funds went to build and operate prisons. Between 1989 and 1999,Mississippi saw per capita state corrections appropriations rise by 115%, while per capita state higher education appropriations increased by less than 1%. Mississippi built 17 new prisons between 1997 and 2005, but not one new state college or university. And several more Mississippi prisons are under construction or consideration. There are now almost twice as many African American men in Mississippi prisons as in colleges and universities, and the state spends nearly twice as much to incarcerate an inmate as it takes to send someone to college. Moreover, due to new drug laws and a “truth-in-sentencing” bill passed in the mid-1990s, nearly 70% of those imprisoned in the state are nonviolent offenders. Mississippi is not unique in this situation—most states have followed this path and are facing serious budget shortages due to multiyear commitments to expand their correctional systems.

These and other dynamics of mass imprisonment make up what are called invisible punishments or collateral consequences. Changing the trends noted here are difficult for several reasons. First, it is very difficult to alter prevailing sentencing policies and practices, which can be legislated in a matter of hours but take years to undo. In a broader sense, the national commitment to mass imprisonment is deeply embedded in a punitive and individualistic approach to social policy. This has not always been the case in the United States, and is certainly not the style adopted in many other countries. Changing this political and social environment remains the real obstacle to a more effective and humane crime policy.

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