Though you’d never know it from reading the academic literature, some people in minority communities even see prison as potentially positive for individuals as well as for communities. “I don’t buy the idea that there’s no sense to prison,” says Clyde Fulford, a 54-year-old lifelong resident of the William Mead Homes, a downtown Los Angeles housing project. Having raised his children to be hardworking, law-abiding citizens, Fulford is a real role model for his neighborhood, not the specious drug-dealing kind posited by the “social ecological” theory of incarceration. “I know a lot of people who went to prison,” Fulford says. “A lot changed they life for the better. Prison was they wake-up call.” Is prison unavoidable and thus unfair? “They knew they was going to pay. It’s up to that person.” What if the prisoners hadn’t been locked up? “Many would be six feet under.”
Robert Grace, the Los Angeles prosecutor, is acutely aware of the fragility and preciousness of the rule of law. “As a civilized society, we can’t allow what’s happening in Latin America to take over here,” he says. “Venezuela and Mexico are awash in appalling violence because they don’t respect the law.” Thus, when prominent figures like Barack Obama make sweeping claims about racial unfairness in the criminal-justice system, they play with fire. “For any political candidate to make such claims out of expediency is wrong,” Grace says. “If they have statistics that back up the claim, I’d like to see them. But to create phony perceptions of injustice is as wrong as not doing anything about the real thing.”
The evidence is clear: black prison rates result from crime, not racism. America’s comparatively high rates of incarceration are nothing to celebrate, of course, but the alternative is far worse. The dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s, to which stricter sentencing policies unquestionably contributed, has freed thousands of law-abiding inner-city residents from the bondage of fear. Commerce and street life have revived in those urban neighborhoods where crime has fallen most.
The pressure to divert even more offenders from prison, however, will undoubtedly grow. If a probation system can finally be crafted that provides as much public safety as prison, we should welcome it. But the continuing search for the chimera of criminal-justice bigotry is a useless distraction that diverts energy and attention from the crucial imperative of helping more inner-city boys stay in school—and out of trouble.