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Unlocking the Truth: Incarceration Tied to Racial Achievement Gap

Experts say closing the racial achievement gap could be achieved by addressing the mass incarceration problem in states such as Tennessee. (Penn State/flick.com)
Experts say closing the racial achievement gap could be achieved by addressing the mass incarceration problem in states such as Tennessee. (Penn State/flick.com)
March 20, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The mass incarceration of African Americans has contributed significantly to the racial achievement gap in the nation's schools, according to a recent report.

The so-called war on drugs vastly expanded the U.S. prison population. But while African Americans are no more likely to sell or use drugs, they are three times more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted and will serve more time in prison than whites.

According to Leila Morsy, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales and co-author of the report, when a parent is sent to prison, their children become more susceptible to depression, behavioral problems and ADHD.

"Their grade point average drops, they're also more likely to drop out of school,” Morsy said. "Boys are more likely to drop out because they themselves have been incarcerated."

The report, published by the Economic Policy Institute, urged educators to join with criminal justice reformers to advocate for policies that would end mass incarceration. Earlier this month, Tennessee Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said he wants to take a comprehensive look at the state's criminal sentencing laws for the first time in 30 years.

In Tennessee, African Americans make up about 17 percent of the population but 44 percent of the inmates in prisons and jails. Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the effects of mass incarceration are serious and pervasive.

"it can't possibly be just a criminal justice issue, just a racial justice issue - although it is both of those things,” Grawert said. "It's an economic justice issue. It's an education issue. It’s an issue that affects all of us in a myriad amount of ways."

Morsy stressed that sentencing reform and increased educational and employment opportunities for released offenders also would benefit those left behind when a parent goes to jail.

"Improvements in our criminal justice policies will lead to improved outcomes for children and are very likely to contribute to narrowing the achievement gap,” she said.

In 2014, more than 600,000 inmates nationally were serving sentences of a year or more in state prisons for nonviolent crimes.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - TN