EDITORIAL: The Mass Incarceration of Young Black Men

Executive Vice President of The Doe Fund, Harriet McDonald, writes on the mass incarceration of young Black men in America and solutions to it. This editorial first appeared on The Huffington Post

You’re young, you’re black, and you’ve got no future.

Why? Because you were arrested on drug charges. You’ve been arrested before, just like more than half of the other young black men in your neighborhood. But this time, you’ll receive a mandatory “war on drugs” sentence.

Your father was incarcerated. So was your brother. And now, you. Your court-appointed attorney says you’ve got no chance at trial. “Take the deal you’re offered,” she tells you. After all, four years is better than 10.

If you survive the gangs who run the youth block at Rikers Island and the abuse from guards, you may get transferred to a prison upstate. If they’re too crowded, you’ll spend the next four years right where you are, in hell.

When you make it out, you’ll be psychologically scarred. You’ll be broke. If your mother isn’t around or if she’s living in poverty, you’ll likely be homeless, too. And since you spent most of your adolescence watching your back instead of receiving an education, you never finished high school. There’s only one way for you to support yourself now: Selling more drugs.

So the cycle starts, all over again.

This “story” isn’t fiction. It is the reality of the cycle of incarceration for countless young, poor, undereducated, black men in the United States. And it is a national travesty.

Has anyone proposed reforms? Sure. Parole reform. Oversight reform. Sentencing reform. But these reforms are all about the prisons, not about the people in them. And while there’s no doubt that reforms are needed, I’m far more troubled that a young man’s future, his education and his ability to provide for himself and his family has never entered the criminal justice equation.

On top of the human cost of this crisis, there’s the financial waste. It costs over $400 a day to keep a young man locked up at Rikers Island in New York City. For half that, we could get him the best education and supportive services in the nation. But instead of educating, we incarcerate. Young black men lose their futures. Our cities lose the taxpayers’ money. And our country loses another generation to prison.

The only way to save these young men’s futures is to get them out of toxic, hopeless environments and equip them with the education, skills, experience and training they need to support themselves permanently. In short, they need opportunity and a path to self-sufficiency. And our country needs effective alternatives to incarceration for young, nonviolent offenders.

Residential programs that include intensive support services, educational opportunities, paid work, and job training aren’t easy to create nor are they common. But they work.

The Ready, Willing & Able program, which my husband and I started 25 years ago, is one of them. It reduces recidivism among graduates by nearly 70 percent. This year, we’ve started work with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to develop a similar “prep school”-style residential program for young men. And there are others on the horizon and in practice, too.

There won’t ever be just one answer. There will — and should — be hundreds of models to try. We must test them all, rigorously, and measure the results. Then, we have to come together and agree that the hard work of starting programs like these pales in comparison to the costs of incarceration.

If we don’t, this generation’s children — and the children of their children — will get caught in exactly the same cycle. And we can’t afford that: not financially, not morally and certainly not as a nation founded on the ideals of equality, opportunity and freedom.

Harriet McDonald

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About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS. The organization's flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.