05/14/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

A Harsh Sentence for Our Communities

The nation seems to be recognizing a need for change regarding the policies which have resulted in an inordinate number of people of color who are incarcerated in the criminal justice system. The Obama Administration through its Attorney General, has begun to address the demographic disproportionately in the criminal justice system. This week's guest blog is written by Michael Holzman, researcher and author. - Eric J. Cooper

By Michael Holzman
Guest Blogger

The National Research Council of the National Academies is out with a new study that paints a grim picture of the racial disparities of incarceration and their effects on families and communities. Among other studies, it poignantly supports Michelle Alexander's seminal 2010 publication, "The New Jim Crow."

The statistics in The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, which was funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice, are shocking.

• 2.2 million adults are in U.S. prisons and local jails -- the largest prison population in the world by far. The United States has nearly one-quarter of the world's prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.

• Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic. Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.

• In 2009, 62 percent of black children 17 or younger whose parents had not completed high school had experienced a parent being sent to prison, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic children and 15 percent for white children with similarly educated parents.

The consequences of these statistics are terrifying.

The study found no conclusive evidence of a reduction in crime, based on decades of data, but there is no doubt that high rates of incarceration and long prison sentences have shaped poor, minority communities -- and not for the better. "The vast expansion of the criminal justice system has created a large population whose access to public benefits, occupations, vocational licenses ... is limited by a criminal conviction," the study said. "Disfranchisement of former prisoners and the way prisoners are enumerated in the U.S. census combine to weaken the power of low-income and minority communities."

Young African-American men particularly are affected: "Similar to the rise in incarceration rates, most of the growth in lifetime risk of imprisonment was concentrated among men who had not been to college. Imprisonment risk reached extraordinary levels among high school dropouts. Among recent cohorts of African-American men, 70 percent of those who dropped out of school served time in state or federal prison. For these men with very little schooling, serving time in state or federal prison had become a normal life event."

Said Bruce Western, vice-chair of the committee that did the study and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government: "It can be challenging to draw strong causal conclusions from this research, but it's clear that incarceration is now a facet of the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities. Prisons are part of a poverty trap, with many paths leading in, but few leading out."

Based on the study, we can estimate that in many African American communities one-third to one-half of the men will have spent time in prison, unable to contribute to the support of their children while incarcerated and only slightly more able to do so afterward: undereducated, virtually unemployable, disfranchised.

How did this happen? The study cites "an increasingly punitive political climate" that, beginning in the 1960s, increased minimum sentences, intensified punishment for drug crimes and put people in jail for minor offenses. The "war on crime" that intensified during the Nixon administration and targeted blacks in the South, effectively criminalizing African Americans, was a contributing factor.

Given the devastating impact on many communities and the minimal impact on crime rates, the study suggests the United States revise its policies and reduce long prison sentences. This tragedy is not rooted in the black community, but in the White House, courthouses, and houses of state government throughout our land.

Michael Holzman is a researcher and author. He has served as consultant to numerous foundations and is the author of the Schott Foundation's series "Public Education and Black Male Students: A State Report Card."

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.