-Guest Columnist-

Clinton and the rise and consequences of black incarceration

Aspiring to keep a 1992 campaign promise to shrink the size of government, while simultaneously incarcerating more individuals for longer sentences a part of a get tough on crime policy, President Bill Clinton contracted out to private prisons.

This accounting “sleight of hand,” according to a 1995 New York Times article, “Prisons For Profit” used privately-owned companies to run almost all new prisons; so the employees would not show up on the Federal Bureau of Prisons official payroll.


America’s current fascination with the former president and now advisor to President Barack Obama and his legacy needs to be put into perspective for Black America. The media’s adoration of America’s 42nd president, which seems to only increase with time, needs to be given a historical repair, especially in regards to Black America. His moves to increase incarceration have to be seen alongside the subsequent devastating consequences rained down upon urban neighborhoods.

According to Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Bethany Alertson’s important 2005 analysis of five national surveys titled, “Understanding African American Misperceptions of Racial Economic Fortunes,” unfounded Black perceptions of personal economic advancement and group economic improvement fostered likeable “attitudes” toward then President Clinton.

In determining Clinton’s likeability, no consideration was given to his leading Democratic charge into a “Southern strategy” to appeal to poor and working class Whites by adopting “the very same strategy in an effort to win back the so-called White swing voters, the Reagan Democrats, the folks who had defected from the Democratic Party in the wake of the civil rights movement,” said The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, in a recent interview.

To add insult to injury, during the Clinton administration, laws that disproportionately affected Blacks were championed, including voiding access to federal financial aid for school upon prison release for drug offenders and banning public housing based on arrest records, not convictions. Under the federal law the same were banned “for the rest of their lives,” noted Alexander, from access to food stamps if convicted of a felony drug offense.

The consequences of the above have been catastrophic.

Unable to find their way in society, and having been released from the criminal-ridden environs of prison, many resorted to exploiting their refined vocation, criminality.

Urban neighborhoods were victimized by federal policy determined for political motives without consideration of social consequences.

According to a 1973 recommendation made by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”

Another consequence of incarceration and its contribution to urban blight is the fact that many rural communities chose to connect their economies to prisons. The problem is exacerbated, according to a Congressional Research Service study, “Economic Impacts of Prison Growth,” by the fact that Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely than Whites to be incarcerated.

With U.S. Census policy counting inmates as residents of the place where they’re incarcerated, rather than their address before imprisonment, the Congressional Black Caucus complained the practice “drains federal funds that are distributed under population formulas based on Census data from needy urban areas.”

Over the last several decades the U.S. prison population has increased by over 400 percent. The country has 5 percent of the global population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The end of 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice reported, more that 203 million adults were in local, state or federal custody. Five million more were on probation or parole. These numbers are fueled, according to CRS, by “tough drug enforcement, stringent sentencing laws, and high rates of recidivism” that disproportionably affect Blacks and Hispanics.

To add insult to injury 1.7 million children under the age of 18 have imprisoned parents. Many of these “incarcerated parents,” reports CRS were previously the “main breadwinners” and their imprisonment has led to increased household instability and increased poverty.

Black and Hispanic incarceration is way out of proportion to Whites. The Justice Department’s 2007 and 2008 figures says Blacks, who represent about 12 percent of the population, made up nearly 40 percent of federal prisons and over 38 percent of state prison populations. Hispanics, according to the 2007 figures, representing roughly 15 percent of the population were 31.4 percent of the prison population.

After 1992, the year Clinton won election, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research report “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration,” “both violent crime and property crime declined … however, the incarcerated population continued to expand rapidly.”

The report says the reason for this sharp increase included “stricter sentencing policies, particularly for drug-related offenses, rather than rising crime, (as) the main culprit behind skyrocketing incarceration rates.”

The report also blamed get “tough on crime” policies like “three-strikes laws, truth in sentencing laws, and mandatory minimums” as reasons that “led to a significant increase in the number of people who are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.”

Clinton’s politically induced calculations during the 1992 election season are a matter of record. His rebuke of Sister Souljah during an appearance before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition smacked of pandering to moderate and conservative voters.

And though he denies that was his motivation, Clinton admits the move improved his standing in the polls.

One news account in particular, said his “calculated denunciation” of a so-called extremist position or special interest group “wrapped Clinton in a warm centrist glow just in time for the general election.”

(Jehron Muhammad, who writes from Philadelphia, can be reached at [email protected].)