The statement has often been made that there are more 17-year-old black men in prison than there are in college. Sometimes it is made more broadly as, "There are more young black men in prison than there are in college." Either way, if true this would be a troubling statistic. And would indicate that prison reform is certainly necessary.
From what I've been able to find, this quote goes back to Ben Carson, who said there were more young black men in the criminal justice system than in college. Politifact did a study on this and was able to identify nearly ten times as many young black men in college as were incarcerated, so this statistic appears to be untrue.
Does that mean prison reform is not necessary? If that were the only measurement, possibly not, but we must also consider some other factors. To begin, the sheer number of Americans in prisons is staggering. China is the most populated country in the world with 1.4 billion people, followed closely by India with 1.3 billion. The United States is third with 332 million. Yet, China incarcerates 1.7 million of its citizens and India less than 500,000. The United States, by contrast, leads the world in incarcerations with more than 2 million.
When viewed by race, the numbers are not encouraging. While whites are the largest group in prison, they are also the largest group in the general population of the country. While roughly 60% of the country are white and 15% are black, whites make up 58% of the prison population, while blacks are currently at 38%. And while 38% is certainly unacceptable, it is encouraging to see that the number is down slightly from the years before. Although only by a small amount.
What is truly abysmal is that in 1970 the total number of people in prison in this country was less than 500,000; putting about where India is today. So how did we go from that number to more than 2 million in such a short period of time? Well, we did it by making several mistakes.
To begin with, we declared a war on drugs. Now, this was a very bad idea because at the same time that we were decrying the evils of drugs, we had television commercials telling us to smoke (nicotine is a drug) and drink (alcohol is a drug). So, the war on drugs was only on some drugs. That will never work.
Added to that, the war on drugs specifically targeted the poor, which in 1970 tended to also mean minority, especially blacks. So, the majority of arrests for drugs was in the black community. This creates a vicious cycle because men with a prison record have a harder time finding a job, and the jobs they often get pay much less than they need to live on. This leads to more dependency on drugs, either as a means of making money or as a means of alleviating the drudgery of day-to-day living. Which leads back to prison.
It's also important to notice that many of the people in the prison system are awaiting trial. They are still in jail because they cannot afford to pay the bail to be allowed to be free. Some of these people will not go to prison because they aren't guilty or their guilt cannot be proved, but they are still missing work, and will lose their jobs while they wait.
And then came three-strikes laws, which put many people in prison for life even though their crimes do not warrant such harsh punishment. And it should also be noted that sentences are often longer based on skin color.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is apparent that prison reform is desperately needed, but it is not a simple answer. Legalizing drugs is a start, and that can be done easily enough. That will eliminate about 20% of the current prison population. We also need to eliminate bail (this can also be done), which will reduce the incarcerated population by about 25%. These two moves along will reduce the population in our jails and prison by nearly half.
We need to get rid of bad laws, like three-strikes. And we need fair sentences that are not based on race. The purpose of prison is to rehabilitate. If the prisoner has learned their lesson, it is time to release them, not keep them in for years, and in some cases, decades. This is a waste of tax dollars and a waste of a life.
We should be working toward bringing out prisons back to where they were in 1970; with one fourth of the prisoners that we have today. And prison reform is dearly needed to accomplish that goal.