New info from the Department of Corrections finds Georgia’s incarceration rate of black men dropped by 30 percent in the last eight years. But a huge imbalance still exists in our state prisons. African American men still make up nearly two thirds of Georgia’s prison population. We talk about this trend with Bill Rankin, Reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Also James Forman Jr., a Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He is also author of the book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
Adam Ragusea: Why are African-American men locked up at such disproportionate rates not only in Georgia, but nationwide?
James Forman Jr. : Well, starting in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, two things happened: we had a rising crime, but then most importantly we had a massive increase in what people call “tough on crime” policies. So, mandatory minimum sentencing, aggressive policing and prosecution of drug offenses, eliminating parole, and denying people bail were all the stages of the criminal justice system. We got tougher, we got harder, and we got more punitive. That was mostly concentrated not exclusively, but more towards African-American communities and towards African-American men.
Ragusea: The incarceration rate has dropped by 30% over the last eight years with African-American males, what’s behind that change?
Bill Rankin: What I think is notable is that last year the number of African-Americans being sent to state prison as the lowest for any single year in the last three decades. It’s pretty astonishing that the rates of the overall number of black inmates in a single year has the lowest number for one year in 30 years. I cannot say certainly what’s behind it, but we do know three things for sure: one is that the crime rate has dropped, second is that fewer people are committing crimes, and lastly is that fewer people are going to prison as part of Georgia’s criminal justice reform package a few years ago that the legislature changed.
Ragusea: Violent crime has been plummeting nationwide since the peak in the early 90’s. Do we know what’s behind that broader trend? It can’t just be criminal justice reform, right?
Forman Jr.: You know, criminologists have been debating why crime rose in the 60’s, and in the 80’s and they’ve been debating why crime has declined over the last two decades. I can’t prove to you that my theory is better than the next person’s theory; you know we really don’t know. People point to some of the sentencing policies probably deserving some credit on the “tough on crime” policies. You’ve seen over the last two or three decades that at the community level, lots of people in churches, neighborhood groups, civic associations, NAACP fraternities and sororities have looked at this crisis in the black community and are starting to step up to create alternative programs for young people in order to divert or help them from the criminal system.