Why the Debate About Ferguson Should Go Beyond Aggressive Police Practices

Why the debate ignited by Ferguson should go beyond police use of deadly force.

No one beyond his friends and family would know Michael Brown's name if he had been arrested, and not killed, during his encounter with police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. And yet, as too many young African-American men and their families know, an arrest could also have irrevocably changed Michael Brown's life. So far, the debate ignited by Ferguson has focused on the use of deadly force. But any serious conversation must also examine the broader dimensions of African-Americans' interactions with the criminal-justice system.

A protester is detained by police following the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson. (David McNew/Getty Images)Brown's killing has touched such a nerve largely because it crystallized the increased risk African-Americans face of having a deadly encounter with law enforcement. A recent investigation by Ryan Gabrielson and his colleagues at the nonprofit ProPublica news organization found that young black males around Brown's age—from 15 to 19—were more than 20 times as likely as their white counterparts to be fatally shot by police.

Brown's death appears to be kindling the most serious discussion in years about what steps (such as mandatory body cameras for police officers) might reduce those numbers. But if the debate stops there, it would miss the breathtakingly pervasive, if less visible, tragedy unfolding around those fatal encounters.

If Brown had lived, testimony to the grand jury indicates he probably would have faced charges for fighting with the police officer. And that prospect would have placed him directly in a river that cuts through too many black households. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, at least 250,000 African-Americans were newly incarcerated in state prisons (which house the vast majority of the nation's correctional population). That exceeded the number of newly imprisoned whites, even though whites constitute about five times more of the population.

Researchers Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Texas have catalogued that among working-age men, one in 12 African-Americans in the United States is imprisoned, compared with one in 36 Hispanics and just one in 87 whites. African-American men born in the late 1970s, the two have calculated, had a one-in-five chance of being imprisoned by age 34 if they obtained only a high school degree—and a stunning two-in-three chance of landing in prison if they didn't finish high school.

In most cases, time in prison powerfully lowers the ceiling on a life. Former inmates work less regularly and get paid less than those who were never imprisoned; using studies that track individuals over long periods, Western and Pettit have calculated that having served time lowers annual earnings by fully 40 percent. "We are talking about mostly low-wage people to begin with, and now their life prospects are even more diminished," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group that promotes criminal-justice reform. Those constricting opportunities have predictable effects in shattering families and reducing prospects for children with a parent who has been incarcerated.

Once Brown scuffled with Wilson, his life had likely already turned down that rocky road. Brown was responsible for the choices that placed him in that position. Yet our society suffers, too, when young men like Brown make decisions that reduce their chances of building the stable lives that underpin stable communities. Black and Hispanic young people now at elevated risk of incarceration will provide most of the work force's future growth, which means the cost of squandering their potential will only grow.

It does not negate personal responsibility to acknowledge that circumstances shape the choices individuals make. As Western notes, researchers have found that "racially segregated, high-crime, high-poverty census tracts" produce a disproportionate number of the nation's prisoners.

Ferguson looks like those places: Three-fifths of its public school students qualify as low-income, and almost all of its neighborhoods meet the "threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge," as the Brookings Institution recently wrote. Another recent analysis found that across the broader St. Louis area, blacks are almost four times as likely as whites to be poor, more than three times as likely to be unemployed, and nearly twice as likely to give birth to premature children.

None of those statistics excuses Brown's role in the confrontation with Wilson—or justifies Wilson's response. But to ignore them is to ensure that more young people like Brown make damaging choices. Opportunity is the soil in which personal responsibility flourishes. Reforms in police practices might keep more young men like Michael Brown alive, and rethinking mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses would keep more of them out of prison. But such changes alone won't stem the flow of black men cascading into the penal system, because the BJS data show that drug offenses now account for only about one-fourth of newly incarcerated African-Americans (way down from 10 years ago, and now about the same percentage as whites). There are no easy answers for reversing this corrosive tide of incarceration—or the disproportionate cost that crime imposes on black communities themselves—but no solution will be viable without more opportunity in places like Ferguson.