Our Brothers Keepers

Our Brothers’ Keepers Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System
By Jerome Miller
Cambridge University Press, 1996, 304 pages, $24.95

Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes
By James Gilligan
A Grossett/Putnam Book, 1996, 306 pages, $28.95

Tonight, 700,000 African-American men will be locked up in some local jail, or state or federal penitentiary. Larger numbers are on parole or probation, or out on bail pending court action. The number of incarcerated black men has doubled since 1985. We are fast becoming our brothers’ keepers, but in a horrifyingly different way from what the scriptures instruct.

While the jails fill to capacity, inner-city violence continues at near-record levels. Especially among the poor, the epidemiology of murder has moved from a dark curiosity to a numerically significant health threat. In 1993, 11,400 black men died of lung cancer in the United States. That same year, 10,640 were murdered. Among poor black men, homicide is as common as many prominent ailments we associate with the twilight of human life.

What are we to make of these statistics? Urban violence makes headlines when it is the most openly depraved. Yet the agony is no less intense in more mundane cases where the lines between Cain and Abel are more difficult to draw. We encounter the troubled boy buffeted by difficulties at home. We see him failing out of school. We meet him, repeatedly, in juvenile court. We encounter him as the sullen emergency room patient, his face slashed by perpetrators unknown. Eventually, we are not surprised to hear that he has killed someone or that he lays on a slab at the city morgue. At every point, onlookers and the young man himself can see catastrophe looming. Yet the downward spiral of violence proves inexorable.

Can we do better? This question animates the two books under review. Both might be easily dismissed for descending, at times, to polemical and grossly over-simplified argument. In the end, however, both present a compelling case that the current punitive response to urban mayhem is making the problem worse.

Is the judicial system racially biased?

A core argument of Jerome Miller’s Search and Destroy is that our justice system discriminates against African-Americans at every stage: Police officers target young black men for surveillance and arrest. Prosecutors charge poor black suspects with serious crimes when facts and the law leave room for more lenient interpretation. Judges and parole boards are more punitive with black prisoners than they are with comparable whites. Miller’s experience positions him well to make this argument. A prominent liberal critic of the justice system, he is best known for his controversial tenure as director of juvenile corrections in Massachusetts a quarter-century ago. More recently, Miller made headlines with a 1992 study that 42 percent of young black men in Washington, D.C., were jailed or otherwise in-process within the justice system on a typical day.

Miller presents an especially strong indictment of those strands of the justice system that deal with low-level offenders. A high point of Search and Destroy recounts Miller’s experience as a federally appointed court monitor in Duvall County, Florida. As he describes, local jails are filled with our urban rabble: shoplifters, vandals, and petty thieves, prostitutes, traffic offenders, overly menacing beggars, addicts, and drunks.

The “drug war” was a disaster-in-waiting for African-Americans from the day of its conception. Despite the fact that drug usage among various racial and ethnic groups in the 1970s and 1980s remained roughly equivalent to their representation in the society, from the first shot fired in the drug war African-Americans were targeted, arrested, and imprisoned in wildly disproportionate numbers.
–Jerome Miller, in Search and Destroy

We don’t know what to do with these people; so we lock them up, if only long enough to schedule a hearing where they can plead guilty and be sentenced to the time they’ve already served. Such strategies focus like a laser beam on the most troubled residents of poor communities. Jails are often the last places people should be sent to receive mental health services or other needed help.

The drug war

Miller’s argument also applies, with some qualification, to the war against drugs. In 1979, drug offenders represented 6 percent of state prison inmates. Even as more violent criminals are jailed, 30 percent of new commitments to state prison are now for drug-related crimes. Meanwhile, the smaller federal system bulges to accommodate the ballooning cohort of drug offenders. Such harsh policies no doubt have their merits. They have surely reduced the incidence of drug-related fetal defects and domestic abuse. Many drug offenders should be in jail anyway because they would otherwise commit other crimes. These qualifications duly noted, one can hardly deny that harsh policies are impractical and politically unsustainable.

Current policies seek to disrupt the drug market by arresting large numbers of relatively low-level operatives. One would have to jail an enormous number of offenders to exhaust the huge pool of unskilled recruits willing to do such work. Right now, entrepreneurs with access to drugs cannot hire everyone who comes in search of work. Moreover, dealers pay higher wages than are required to fill the available jobs. Impulsive young men apparently need strong incentives not to steal money or drugs, and not to turn informer if they are captured by police.

Harvard economist Richard Freeman notes that legal wages for unskilled workers have fallen 30 percent over 15 years. As the bottom falls out of the legitimate economy, dramatic increases in enforcement do not eliminate incentives to sell drugs. One study found that one-third of young black men in Washington have participated in the drug trade. Problems of this magnitude cannot be solved at acceptable human cost through police intervention.

These costs are reflected in the open bitterness towards the justice system expressed by African-Americans across financial and social lines. Such sentiment is most explosively displayed when black jurors refuse to convict obviously guilty defendants charged with nonviolent drug crimes. The sources of this bitterness are easily misunderstood. Some conservatives suggest that black anger is fueled by farfetched conspiracy theories, or by an inability to acknowledge the prevalence of crime among black youth. At times, conservatives make valid points liberals would prefer to ignore.

Yet such conservatives prove remarkably tone deaf to the nature of black ambivalence. As primary victims of the violence, inner-city residents are well aware of the crimes committed by some young men in their neighborhoods. Economist and social critic Glenn Loury has poignantly described the dilemma crime poses within the black community. Unlike other citizens, poor black men and women must confront their own connection to these offenders. They know that the wrongdoers are their own troubled relatives, friends, and neighbors, not some anonymous, easily demonized group.

And here blacks see their nation respond to urban violence with the same bemused voyeurism and paralyzed incompetence occasioned by other glaring problems of inner-city life. The only authoritative response our government seems capable of mounting is to jail an ever-increasing fraction of black and brown young men. It is no wonder that many African-Americans recoil from policies that would reduce crime by destroying or incapacitating the individual offenders.

The juvenile justice system

Miller’s argument is especially well-founded when one considers the grossly different treatment often provided to young offenders.

More likely than not, the white kid from a good suburban home who punches out his girlfriend will receive a therapeutic rather than a punitive response. As Miller acidly notes, the necessary psychological diagnosis will be quickly made. Perhaps the young man will be sent to a specialized private school. At every step, the youth is likely to receive the benefit of the doubt. The very fact that the young man becomes violent despite numerous advantages seems sufficient to diagnose emotional distress. As it happens, this is probably the right policy.

Miller argues that a violent juvenile is more likely to get psychological help if he is white.

The poor black kid from Roxbury is more likely to land in juvenile detention with more hardened offenders. Ironically, the more this kid has going against him, the more likely he will be treated harshly because he is judged to be a potentially serious offender. To all outward appearances, his future is bleak. So his crimes appear to be a relatively predictable career move. The iron logic of deterrence demands that he be severely punished, to discourage his peers from following the same course.

What does prison do to people?

It is here that James Gilligan’s Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes makes its greatest contribution to public debate. A psychiatrist with long experience treating prisoners and those diagnosed as criminally insane, Gilligan provides an intriguing meditation on the nature of American violence. Gilligan renders the troubled humanity of the men and women who commit terrible crimes.

Gilligan highlights an inherent contradiction between the justice system’s competing roles. A starkly utilitarian function of our jails is to incarcerate and to deter likely offenders. Yet this predictive calculus rests uneasily with the equally compelling need to fairly respond to the life circumstances of each offender. The statistician may tell you that the social background of an illiterate, hot-tempered drug dealer from a squalid housing project is correlated with future crime. Yet these same characteristics highlight the unspeakable wrongness of any wholly punitive response to the young man’s troubles.

Social psychologists tell us that inner-city young men hold the same moral values as other Americans. If these young men are more likely to end up dead or in prison, this is because they face daunting obstacles. As long as poverty, ignorance, and spiritual exhaustion persist in our inner-cities, harsh measures against crime may be sadly necessary, but such policies are never entirely justified. Even if punitive policies discourage wrong-doing, they operate by force alone rather than by ameliorating the dismal conditions that give rise to crime.

Gilligan and Miller also present an especially timely brief that chain gangs and boot camps designed to humiliate prisoners will aggravate the very violence one seeks to deter. Across the nation, we see many juveniles tried as adults and incarcerated with hardened offenders. Politicians order the removal of weight sets and televisions from prison settings. Meanwhile, educational efforts for prisoners have been reduced.

Almost no one knowledgeable about corrections favors such measures. In the first place, our prisons are amply bleak and dangerous to serve their intended deterrent purpose. As Gilligan recounts in gruesome detail, thousands of inmates are mistreated, assaulted, or raped every day. Miller describes poorly managed lockups, where presumed innocent defendants are jammed into over-crowded cells where they share a common toilet or a simple pit with a dozen others.

I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the feeling of being shamed and humiliated, disrespected, and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this loss of face…For we misunderstand these men, at our peril, if we do not realize they mean it literally when they say they would rather kill or mutilate others, be killed or mutilated themselves, than live without pride, dignity, and self-respect.
–James Gilligan, in Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic

Moreover, by brutalizing prisoners we make these men even more violent than they already are. Gilligan provides several poignant vignettes of men and women drawn to violence in their relations with others. We can bottle up such behavior by enacting ever-harsher policies, just as we can beat the unruly child who bullies his peers. Such methods may provide momentary relief, but one is wise to brace for later problems.

Search and Destroy notes that the barbarity of the gang culture already owes much to the language, hierarchy, and social mores within prison walls. As the prison population grows by 1,500 every week, jails becomes a powerful socializing experience for many young men. Do we like what they are learning? Macbeth warns us: bloody instructions, once taught, return to plague the inventor.

One can readily appreciate the revulsion and fear that most Americans feel towards violent offenders. I myself have been robbed or beaten four times since 1981. My gentle cousin was murdered by two burglars he surprised in his apartment. Those who commit such crimes must often be jailed for the safety of the community. Yet as Gilligan remind us, by then it is often too late to rescue the criminal himself, or his victims.

Gilligan contends that humiliation of prisoners will inevitably aggravate the very violence society seeks to deter.

Such attention to the root causes of violence is wildly out of step with the dark public mood. This political reality may be responsible for the most glaring defects in these otherwise fine books. Perhaps despairing of the possibilities for reasoned discourse, both authors seem drawn to shrill and simplistic arguments that tend to undermine their own brief.

Jerome Miller provides ample ammunition to his critics by seeking to underplay the true extent of criminal activity among young black men. Most notably, he fails to confront evidence that the most glaring racial disparities in incarceration are found in the most liberal states, while the smallest racial disparities are found in the deep south. Distinguished criminologist Albert Blumstein concludes that the principal explanation is that liberal states choose to jail people only for the most serious offenses. Within state institutions where most sentenced prisoners are found, about 30 percent of black inmates are serving time for murder or robbery. Victim surveys, FBI statistics, and prison records all indicate that the majority of such crimes are committed by black offenders.

In a different way, James Gilligan makes it all too easy for those wishing to dismiss his argument. Social scientists will be rightly annoyed by Gilligan’s breezy neglect of relevant research. Like many other physicians who discuss violence from the supposedly novel public health perspective, Gilligan invokes the authority of his profession to advance familiar policies that were analyzed with greater care by liberal sociologists long ago. The crudity of Gilligan’s sociological vision is exemplified by his suggestion that the “white ruling class” foments lower-class violence to divert attention from its own exploitative crimes.

Meet the Author
It is unfortunate that both authors are drawn to such bombastic argument. These days, it seems impossible to draw public attention to the futility of brutal corrections policies without presenting a similarly extreme case of one’s own.

Opposing the tenor of the times, Miller and Gilligan remind us that the only reliable way to prevent crime is to create a society that produces fewer angry and hopeless offenders. Within such a society, violence would become unthinkable to all but the tiniest troubled minority. It would become equally unthinkable to permit the pointless brutality of our current prison system. For such a society would remember that we are our brothers’ keepers. It would remember that by our treatment of the most lowly and degraded will we be judged.

Harold Pollack teaches public heath policy at Yale University.