By Dana Amihere

prison barsLaw enforcement, policymakers and justice advocates said Monday that excessive incarceration of blacks and other people of color is not only a moral injustice but doesn’t make economic sense for taxpayers.

The Maryland State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights  met in Annapolis to hear testimony on the disproportionate number of blacks incarcerated in Maryland and across the nation and its associated costs. This 18-member committee is supposed to meet over the next two years to discuss possible solutions to issues of racial disparity.

“For the last 40 years, we have been a nation addicted to incarceration,” said Laura Murphy, national legislative office director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Approximately 1 in 100 American adults is currently behind bars, and about 1 in 33 American adults is either in prison or jail or on parole or probation.”

In Maryland alone, the state’s prison population has nearly tripled to over 22,000 since 1980, Murphy said, a figure which has transformed mass incarceration into an issue of civil rights for people of color, especially blacks.

“One in nine young black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars.” Murphy said. “In some cities, that jumps to one in three young black men under some form of correctional control.”

Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the explosive growth of incarcerated persons comes at a high cost to Marylanders.

“In 1982, one in 41 adults was in jail or on parole or on parole or on probation. Today it’s one in 27. And it’s costing taxpayers $3.3 million a day,” Shelton said.

According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Maryland was increasing the use of prisons for blacks during the 1990s at a faster pace than increasing use of full time, four-year public universities.

Fixing disparities outside prison walls

Today, the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate. While Americans account for only about 5% of the world’s total population, the United States houses 25% of the world’s prison population, about 2.3 million people behind bars, Murphy said.

Panelists throughout the day reiterated that systemic changes have to be made at all levels.

Efforts have been made and lessons learned about best practices to prevent instances of racially-motivated traffic stops over the past decade, said Mark Carter with the Maryland State Police.

The so-called “war on drugs” has had a direct relationship to increased incarceration.

“The war on drugs has been about as successful as the constitutional amendment to ban the consumption of alcohol,” Murphy said.

Not only are blacks prosecuted more frequently for drugs, they — especially black males — are more likely to be convicted and serve longer prison sentences for charges unrelated to the sale of drugs, according to an NAACP report.

There’s a residual impact on the employability and eligibility for financial aid for college for those who end up with a criminal record, Shelton said. Addicts’ self-medication and youth looking to experiment shouldn’t continue to be penalized after their debt to society has been paid.