The United States boasts the world’s largest prison population and high rates of wrongful convictions and recidivism, or the reoffense of ex-convicts. These statistics elicit every sentiment but pride.
The U.S. incarceration system holds two million people, a 500% increase over the last four decades. It has also exonerated over 2,400 people since 1989, highlighting the incredibly high number of erroneous convictions within the system.
The functionality of the U.S. incarceration system can only be remedied by focusing on rehabilitation and deconstructing systemic racial bias. The prison system disproportionately imprisons people of color, especially through the war on drugs, and Washington, D.C.’s incarceration system lends itself to high rates of recidivism. As Georgetown University students and residents of the District, we must actively help implement reform, as the future of the incarceration system of D.C. is at stake.
The growing U.S. prison population is partly due to large-scale, racially biased imprisonment for drug-related crimes. The U.S.’s war on drugs began in the 1970s with former President Nixon. Consequently, the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses has seen an astronomical increase in the last 40 years. Now, drug offenses are now estimated to comprise up to 46% of all sentences.
This has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, as Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable marijuana usage rates to white Americans. Clearly, racial bias is implicated in the war on drugs.
Sentencing is not the only stage of the justice system where this racial disparity can be observed. At the level of policing, the police kill Black men 2.5 times the rate that they do white men, indicating that Black men comprise a quarter of police shooting victims despite comprising only 13% of the United States population. Taking into account all of these facts, racially biased policing and sentencing are insidiously pervasive in the U.S.
According to the National Institute of Justice, nearly 44% of those released from prison are convicted again within the first year of their release, and this number increases to 77% within the first five years after release. .
D.C.’s recidivism rate, currently at 16%, is directly impacted by former President Bill Clinton’s National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Act. This bill places D.C. felons under the jurisdiction of the federal U.S. Bureau of Prisons to relieve the city of the cost of their incarceration system amidst a financial crisis.
Nearly 4,500 D.C. residents are being held in federal prisons and therefore can find themselves serving at any of 122 institutions owned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. This means that residents can serve their sentence as far as Victorville, Calif. Housed thousands of miles from their own neighborhoods, many of them face difficulty reentering their communities. Thus, revoking such a bill is crucial to remedying the District’s recidivism rate.
However, our prison system at large demands more rehabilitative reforms. In pursuit of rehabilitation, prison systems should offer correctional education programs, which have the potential to reduce reoffenses by 43%, occupational training for inmates to develop marketable job skills and even cognitive behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment.
Solving racial inequity in the prison and justice systems remains complicated given its deep roots. An effective start would be at the level of police training. A study at the New York Police Department tracked the effects of a mandatory implicit bias training, which found that post-training, officers were more aware of how policing on the basis of racial biases can make policing unsafe and may lead to officers acting aggressively when someone is not a threat.
One way Georgetown students can remain active in prison reformation is through support of the university’s Prison and Justice Initiative, which was founded in 2016 to respond to the dual crisis of incarceration and recidivism. The initiative focuses efforts on providing a Georgetown education to those incarcerated in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area and business, leadership and law training for ex-convicts. Donations greatly bolster this initiative and provide one means through which we, as Georgetown students, can support equitable prison reform.
As residents of the District, we must remain vocal and engaged on incarceration reform, especially given that recidivism particularly affects the district. We must be advocates for rehabilitative and equitable reform, as the safety of our community depends on it.
Grace Rivers is a junior in the College. Tipping the Scales is published every three weeks.