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Profiting from Punishment

In a population of more than 320 million American citizens, The Prison Policy Initiative estimates around 2.3 million of those citizens are incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons. Of those, more than 433,000 are serving time in federal prison for drug-related offenses.

According to NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Caucasians. Combined with the Hispanic population, these two minority groups comprise around 58 percent of all prisoners, even though they make up around 25 percent of the U.S. population.

“The whole criminalization of drugs really impacts minorities more than anybody else,” said Jane Bayes, CSUN political science professor. “Those are the people who are being picked up for drugs and targeted for drugs… I’m not even sure they’re the major consumers of them [though], because many whites are not targeted in the same way by law enforcement.”

According to The Sentencing Project, more people are incarcerated today just for drug-related crimes, than for all crimes in 1980.

“To a certain degree, you may look at racial profiling and stereotyping [as the reason], depending …[on the]…law enforcement agencies concerned,” said Los Angeles Harbor College political science professor Van Chaney. “I still think that is a problem within law enforcement.”

Chaney said minority groups are incarcerated at higher rates for a variety of reasons, such as lack of good legal representation, dysfunctional families and communities, and low income.

“We are all familiar with the zip code 90210,” Chaney said. “If you have a helicopter in that area at two in the morning … compared to say, Figueroa and King … who would the DEA’s office probably take the case with? Would it be at 90210, compared to South LA or at least South Central LA? Just the name itself changes [things]. I mean it’s that discrepancy that affects, unfortunately, a lot of minority groups.”

The Sentencing Project also reported that people of color make up about 37 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 67 percent of the total prison population. A TIME study estimates black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate 10 times higher than whites, but whites are more likely to abuse these drugs.

Another controversy is the increasing privatization and profitability of prisons. According to the Drug Police Alliance, federal and state governments have spent over $1 trillion on the so-called war on drugs over the past four decades, relying on tax dollars to pay the bills.

“To me, one of the biggest problems is we’ve made prisons into money making operations,” Bayes said, “and that provides all kinds of new incentives to fill the prisons and to keep them [full,] too.”

Private prisons make a huge profit from incarcerating drug offenders, according to the NAACP, mainly due to the mandatory minimum sentencing put in place for drug possession. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average prison sentence for federal drug offenders is more than 11 years. According to the VERA Institute of Justice , the total cost to house prisoners ranged from $14,603 in Kentucky, to $60,076 in New York, per inmate each year. Critics suggest taxpayer dollars are not being well spent, considering that more than two-thirds of all incarcerated prisoners will return to prison within three years of being released.

The debate over the war on drugs is an ongoing one among many Americans, who are concerned about how their tax dollars are spent. Considering the high rate of recidivism, and how much money is spent to imprison drug offenders, many question whether the criminal justice system of prisons is a big business, or a new form of slavery, or both.

Moderator: Nicholas Seaman

Anchor: Caitlin Pieh

Producer: Nicholas Seaman

Social Media Editors: Noemi Barajas and Juaneeq Elliott

Reporters: Noemi Barajas, Halie Cook, Juaneeq Elliott, Ala Errebhi, Caitlin Pieh, Jamie Perez and Nicholas Seaman

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