With the publication of “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” Ta-Nehisi Coates has added an elegant and forceful voice to the growing frustration with the inefficacy and injustice of America’s criminal-justice system. Mandatory-sentencing laws, the War on Drugs, juvenile-justice sentences that seem to do more to create than deter criminals, racial arrest and sentencing disparities: All are ready for a tough national cross-examination.
But even in the unlikely event that Washington and state legislatures successfully adapt the nation’s crime policies to a safer, more racially sensitive era, the nation will still look around to find more black men in prison than it might expect or want. There’s a simple reason for that, one that Coates himself notes: Relative to other groups, blacks commit more crimes. To understand why is to tackle some very hard-to-talk-about realities of black family life. And on that issue—and despite his announced interest in the topic—Coates has been the opposite of lucid.
Coates puts forward two interconnected, but flawed, theories about mass incarceration. First, he argues that there is no relationship between crime and incarceration rates, pointing his readers to a chart showing two apparently disparate trend lines. The first line shows crime levels rising dramatically after 1960; the second shows the rise in incarceration rates coming some 15 years later. Because of the 15-year gap, Coates concludes something other than a crime wave must have led Americans to lock up so many black men after 1975. “Imprisonment rates actually fell from the 1960s through the early ’70s,” he writes “even as violent crime increased … The incarceration rate rose independent of crime—but not of criminal-justice policy.”