Criminal Justice in the South

Today’s guest post on criminal justice comes to us from Abby Reimer, a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and a business minor at Kenan-Flagler. Incarceration disrupts the educational trajectory of young people, and erects barriers to employment and economic security. While funding for public education is cut in the South, state corrections spending continues to rise, exacerbating the challenge for communities trying to address low mobility.


In October 2015, President Obama headed to Charleston, W. Va., to launch a “criminal justice tour,” a high-profile spotlight on criminal justice reform across the country. It is significant that the tour started in the South, where the problems of America’s criminal justice system-racial inequity, harsh sentencing laws, and overcrowded prisons-are most visible and entrenched. In recent years, Southern states have joined the increasingly bipartisan effort to address prison overcrowding, high costs, and prisoner reintegration.
Prisons in the US are overcrowded following the stringent laws. A criminal must be put behind bars, but persons caught for crimes as simple as a DUI might also face imprisonment for as long as ten days in the States. In DUI cases there may or may not be causalities. Not every drink and drive leads to accidents, but the probability of getting caught by the cops is higher due to various obvious signs such as rash driving. If a person is convicted of the same due to a high blood alcohol level (BAC), it is highly likely that they would have to get in touch with a Phoenix DUI lawyer or someone of similar caliber in their vicinity. This might save the person involved from a possible prison conviction.

The Landscape

Like the rest of the country, the South has seen a significant drop in both violent and property crime during the last 20 years. From 2013 to 2014, the South saw a 5.9 percent drop in property crime and a 3 percent drop in violent crime, a slightly smaller decrease than the rest of the country. While decreasing, the South has a long history of being the U.S.’s most violent region. In 2012, the South accounted for 40.9 percent of violent crimes in the country, while its population makes up 37.4 percent of the country.

Nationwide, the drop in crime has been attributed to a smattering of factors: aging populations, decreased alcohol consumption and up to the mid-1990s, increased incarceration.

African Americans, in the nation as a whole and in the South, are overrepresented in all parts of the criminal justice system, from traffic stops to incarceration. In Alabama, Georgia, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, more than 60 percent of those serving life sentences are black, a rate shared by only four Northern states.

The South also carries the distinction of having the largest prison population in the country, almost doubling the incarceration rate in the Northeast. Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” incarcerating 1 in 75 adults, the highest rate in the world. However, prison populations have declined slightly in Southern states during the past few years, even as prison populations have grown in northern and western states.

Changes in Prison Population (2011-2014)

Map 1

Source: Brennan Center for Justice


Criminal reform in tough-on-crime states

Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Alabama are policy leaders in reducing prison populations. The recent reforms show a path forward for conservative, traditionally “tough-on-crime” states to tackle criminal justice reform. Leaders in the state emphasized cost savings and “common-sense” reforms, while not addressing more politicized issues like racial inequity and the death penalty.

Mississippi, which still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, saw its prison population fall 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, with a 14 percent drop from 2013 to 2014 alone. The state passed a sweeping reform bill in April 2014, supported by a grant from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a partnership between the Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trust to help research criminal justice reform. The bill shortened the sentences for many property and drug crimes and suggested new sentencing recommendations for officers. The state also increased supervision of parolees, increased the number of prisoners freed on parole and opened technical rehabilitation centers, which housed parolees who violated terms of their parole rather than sending them back to prison. Conservatives in the state emphasized the financial impact: $266 million in savings over the next decade.

South Carolina’s prison population has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, and state spending on prisons has increased almost 500 percent since 1983. Faced with a projected growth in prison population and a $27 million Department of Corrections deficit, South Carolina passed a reform bill in 2010. The bill shortened sentences for some non-violent crimes, ended mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession and expanded prison alternatives and parole. From 2011 to 2014, crime dropped 14 percent and the prison population dropped by 6 percent.

Texas faced similar financial pressures in the mid-2000s. Prison population growth showed no signs of slowing down, and would have required spending $500 million on new prisons in 2007. The state responded by appropriating $241 million to prison alternatives including drug courts and substance abuse and mental illness treatment programs. In 2011, the Texas legislature passed two bills that shortened probations if parolees completed treatment programs and reducing prison sentences if prisoners completed educational programs. Texas saw a 12 percent drop in crime from 2011-2012 and a 3 percent drop in prison population.

The Republican-controlled government emphasized savings and assured conservatives the state was still “tough on crime.” In March 2014, Republican Gov. Rick Perry spoke about criminal justice reform at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), assuring the crowd that criminal justice reform was a mainstream conservative strategy.

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” Perry asked. “Shut prisons down. Save that money. Texas is still tough on crime. Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody.”

Alabama is the most recent Southern state to tackle criminal justice reform. The state was faced with the same mix of budget constraints and booming prison populations, as well as lawsuits from The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Equal Justice Initiative contending that some state prisons did not meet constitutional standards. The Department of Justice backed up the claims, filing a report in 2014 that claimed that inmates at a women’s prison were subject to sexual abuse by male officers.

In May 2015, the state passed a Republican-sponsored bill that followed the strategy of Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi: reducing penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes, creating a new felony designation for some nonviolent offenses and prioritizing parole and parole supervision. Alabama also passed a bill expanding prison capacity. The reforms are estimated to save the state $380 million and reduce the prison population by 4,200 people.

The death penalty: part of the ‘Southern way of life’?

Southern states have been slower to change death penalty policy, which has largely become Southern in use. While the death penalty largely faded away from 1935-1972, the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia reinvigorated the death penalty as a “states’ rights” issue in the South, said Frank Baumgartner, who studies the death penalty and racial inequity in the criminal justice system at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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Racial discrepancies in the death penalty still loom large. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 42 percent of defendants on death row were black and 43 percent were white, although blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. When the victim is a black male, the death penalty is rarely applied even when black men are the most common victims of homicide, Baumgartner said. A black man who kills a white woman is the most likely to be given the death penalty.

While death penalty reform or abolition hasn’t been backed by the same bipartisan push as prison or sentencing reform, there has been some movement on the issue, Baumgartner said. An upcoming Supreme Court case dealing with racial bias in juries may change the application of the death penalty, Baumgartner said. In North Carolina, for instance, of the 159 prisoners on death row, all-white juries sentenced 31 and another 38 had only one person of color on their juries.

“The death penalty has been politicized in the South to be part of the ‘Southern way of life,’ but it’s actually one of the ugliest reminders of the ‘Southern way of life,’ which is this great fear of the black man that might do something terrible to a white woman in the South,” Baumgartner said. “That fear is really strong, and politically powerful… It leads to an arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty really in a discriminatory manner, where some victims are more valuable than others.”

Crime and punishment looking forward

The South has long been a ‘tough on crime’ region with stark racial disparities in its criminal justice system. However, recent reforms in conservative states show an increasingly Republican-led push for lowering prison populations, changing sentencing laws and cutting costs. Bulging prison populations, drug law enforcement and high criminal-justice system costs will push more Southern states into reforms.

Restoring the Infrastructure of Opportunity after Disaster

Today’s post comes from Dr. John Cooper, Associate Professor of Practice and Texas Target Communities Director at Texas A&M University. Dr. Cooper is also an MDC research fellow. Read more about the community disaster recovery work he led at MDC here.

This weekend the South Carolina Gamecocks came to Texas to play my Texas A&M Aggies in football and left with new resources to help relief and recovery efforts after the flooding in South Carolina. In one instance, the Texas A&M Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) teamed with the 12th Man Student Foundation to donate proceeds from the sale of commemorative fan merchandise. In another instance, over 200 members of Aggies CAN, the largest student-athlete run canned food drive in the nation, organized a food drive that began on October 25 and lasted until game day. I should note that this all happened as the death toll from recent storms – tornadoes and floods – in our own backyard was rising.

The aftermath of storms in South Carolina and Texas remind me of the importance of disaster readiness, especially for the poor, elderly, disabled, and others who can’t survive and recover from disasters without help from outsiders. The importance of creating an infrastructure of opportunity is discussed often on this blog, and so are the inspirational and aspirational stories of people and places doing exemplary things to help others climb up the economic latter. Unfortunately, a disaster like the recent floods in North and South Carolina can pull the ladder from under those who need it most in a matter of hours, or minutes in the case of a tornado.

Wondering how a natural disaster and lack of opportunities can pull the ladder?
Think about this situation. Elderly or disabled people often need external assistance after a flood since they cannot handle the majority of the repairing and restoration tasks on their own. Therefore, they might need electricians, plumbers, and experts who provide Water and Mold Restoration Services to come to their rescue quickly. Otherwise, the elders and the disabled would have to sit in knee-deep water in the dark for hours. Therefore, it is important to create opportunities and infrastructure to ensure that everyone can receive emergency aid quickly. Especially, if the properties have fronted severe damages to their structural elements, resources and solutions become very essential.

For instance, the restoration of a property may require Pier and Beam Foundation Repair services, which can be arranged by the local administration authority in damage-ridden areas. Moreover, if the opportunities to get help quickly aren’t created for those in need, then underprivileged people may never be able to climb up the economic ladder. Moreover, providing small aid and support to the underprivileged can actually help them to get out of their financial crunch and establish a better life for themselves.

Anyway, this past February Karama Neal wrote here about how hard it is for folks to live in the South when they face economic challenges, and disasters can exacerbate these challenges. While disasters don’t discriminate, it is no coincidence that disasters in the South (especially floods) tend to affect the poor and people of color more severely than others. This is because those folks historically tend to be concentrated in low-lying “bottom” areas; on land in floodplains not suitable for farming and that no one wanted until waterfront property became fashionable. In the South, it may have been the only land an African American could own. Nevertheless, due to their circumstances, many poor and people of color in the South are place-bound, in homes that are older and less able to withstand extreme forces. They also typically don’t have access to employment, savings, credit or other resources sufficient to recover from disasters. As a result, the hole that some folks were in before the flooding is now deeper and filled with water, and the ladder is missing a few rungs.

Handling disaster recovery is a daunting task even for someone with the knowledge and confidence to communicate with bureaucracy. For others without the resources or access to credit to cope in the short-term, we need an infrastructure of recovery. Volumes were written before and since Katrina about the inequities and inefficiencies of the way disaster relief is managed and I can tell from reports coming out of flood ravaged areas in South Carolina that we are setting up for more of the same. Now that response efforts are wrapping up and before frustrations begin to peak, I want to share a few things based on my 20 years of research and practice, for those interested in increasing the extent to which marginalize populations are able to survive and recover:

  • Don’t settle for a return to the status quo; build better. Typically, recovery efforts seek to “build back” to pre-disaster levels. For the most vulnerable, the status quo is not a desirable positive. Disaster recovery should be transformative; aiming for reduced vulnerability and greater equity.
  • Tighten the safety net. Because navigating the disaster relief process can be a daunting task for folks not accustomed to handling bureaucracy, it is important for non-profits and service agencies to be more vigilant to ensure the populations they serve don’t fall through the cracks. Case management is critical at this time.
  • Participate in local recovery decision making. My colleagues and I recently published an article on pre-disaster recovery planning efforts in 87 counties and municipalities in the South. We discovered most do a poor job of coordinating with nonprofits and involving the public in the process. Stakeholders and those whose mission is to care for the most vulnerable in a community should take the initiative and pursue opportunities to meaningfully participate in recovery planning to ensure the resulting plans account for the most vulnerable populations. They are not likely to be invited.
  • Keep dollars local. Millions of dollars allocated for recovery efforts go to consulting firms and nonprofit relief agencies not based in and ultimately not accountable to the community. One way to use those resources for transformative recovery is to hire local contractors who employ local people and purchase materials from local suppliers to rebuild.
  • Think long-term on housing. Nothing is more frustrating than witnessing resources and time wasted on temporary housing. It is better to invest in more permanent solutions sooner. For example, the Community Foundation of Brownsville, TX has come up with a temporary-to-permanent housing idea that starts with a 400 sq. ft. core unit that is expandable into a 3-4 bedroom customizable home.

My hope is for everyone involved in recovery efforts to be patient and understand that the key to community recovery is a strong community fabric. You are better together.

Connecting Education and Work in Greenville, SC

Walking along the wide, tree-lined Main Street of downtown Greenville, S.C., it is hard to imagine that just 40 years ago the same path was deserted. Dozens of locally owned restaurants, luxury condos and hotels, and bustling shops belie the city’s history. The city is now a hub of advanced manufacturing, engineering, information technology, and other high-growth industries.

Like many other former mill towns across the South, Greenville’s economy centered on textile manufacturing for much of the 20th century. But unlike many others, Greenville successfully diversified its economy before globalization and technological innovation sent many jobs overseas. In the early 1970s, Michelin invested in the Upstate region, followed by several other automotive manufacturers, and by the mid-1990s, BMW had established a major auto assembly plant in the area. But despite Greenville’s strong economy and national recognition, not all of the city’s residents have benefitted from its prosperity. “A young person’s economic prospects should not be determined by his or her zip code,” says John Concklin, program investment manager at United Way of Greenville County. “Unfortunately, in the area known as the ‘White Horse Corridor,’ prospects for a successful future are tough—32 percent of households live in poverty; 66 percent have only a high school diploma or less; unemployment is greater than 25 percent in some sections; and the city’s lowest performing high schools are found here.” In many of these neighborhoods, students lack the work experiences and information they need to make decisions about how to prepare and compete for family-sustaining jobs. For some students, particularly those living in neighborhoods with high unemployment, there is mistrust of manufacturing jobs, since their parents were laid off when textile jobs were outsourced.

While some young people are skeptical of the labor market, some employers are skeptical of the labor force. In 2007, a study found that two-thirds of Greenville-area companies could not find enough qualified entry-level workers, skilled-production workers, as well as engineering and IT professionals. To solve this problem in the short term, many businesses are relying on young transplants, who are attracted by the density of well-paying jobs and a vibrant downtown. But civic leaders know that talent recruitment isn’t a viable long-term solution for businesses or the community, though that is sometimes a hard case to make. Traci Wickett, president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Cameron County in Brownsville, TX, believes that helping employers understand the potential in the local labor force is always worth the effort. She explains here:


Like Wickett’s efforts in Brownsville, organizations in Greenville are taking the lead on infusing work exposure and experience that is beneficial for both young people and employers. In 2012, the Chamber of Commerce created an Education & Workforce Committee to facilitate integration between business and the school system. By 2014, the Chamber was a part of the schools’ strategic planning process and participated in the search process for the current superintendent. The Chamber’s approach to educational involvement is wide-ranging, supporting efforts from early childhood to higher education. The Greenville business community has been supportive of the development of a successful STEM elementary school as well as a STEAM middle school. To complete the K-12 educational preparation for these types of careers, the Chamber has been very supportive of the NEXT High School, slated to open in the fall of 2016. Integral to all of these educational efforts are strong business involvement and project-based learning. The Chamber is committed to providing business linkages that give students exposure and the skills needed to succeed in the area’s technical, high-growth industries. Hank Hyatt, vice president for economic development at the Greenville Chamber says “You can’t wait until high school to expose kids to career opportunities, so we are helping foster partnerships with middle schools to bring business leaders into seventh grade classrooms.” Hyatt acknowledges that providing the number of internships or other work experiences that Greenville students need is a challenge, but he affirmed the Chamber and the business community’s commitment to building a strong educational and work pipeline for students, particularly those who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. As John Concklin says, “The key to our success hinges on engaging the right people, giving people the space to say what isn’t working, and developing coherent strategies. To solve these problems, we have to work together.”

This post is adapted from a profile written by Beth Caldwell. You can read the full profile and to learn more about Greenville is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people here.

The True Situation

When President Obama gave a eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney last Friday, he urged us all to reflect on history as we work to build a more just society:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history — we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”  What is true in the South is true for America.  Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.  That my liberty depends on you being free, too.  That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.  A roadway toward a better world.  He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.

If understanding history is the best way to break the cycle of injustice, we have a lot of learning to do. “Very few people in this country have any awareness of just how expansive and how debilitating and destructive America’s history of slavery is,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “And so we are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are ‘of the past’ because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century.”

The South’s history of racially motivated terrorism and lynching, after all, was barely understood even as it unfolded. Journalist Ida B. Wells dedicated much of her career to documenting and raising awareness of lynching; in an 1893 speech, she lamented “lynch law” and expressed her conviction that “the apathy and indifference which so largely obtains regarding mob rule is other than the result of ignorance of the true situation.” Nearly 4,000 people were lynched between 1877 and 1950, and we only have that information because of the work of researchers, journalists, and advocates from Ida B. Wells to Bryan Stevenson. We’re still trying to expand knowledge of the true situation.

Even slavery is subject to persistent misconceptions. Margaret Biser, who spent years leading tours of a historic Southern home and plantation, wrote at Vox earlier this week about the ways people talk about slavery. They imply that many enslaved people didn’t have it so bad, that they were well taken care of, and often question whether they might have been grateful or loyal to slaveholders. “Folks have not always been taught that slavery was much more than just difficult labor: It was violence, assault, family separation, fear,” says Biser. These misconceptions are rooted in the rationalizations that slaveholders developed to establishing and maintain American slavery from its inception. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “at $3.5 billion, the four million enslaved African Americans in the South represented the country’s greatest financial asset,” and slaveholders believed that black slavery, rather than contradicting ideals of equality, actually enabled white equality. Coates quotes Jefferson Davis:

You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.

We have to understand this past, of how we built and maintain the narrative of racial difference, not as a footnote or blunder in an otherwise admirable advancement of American society, but as woven deeply into the fabric of our social and economic structures. When we acknowledge that, it’s not entirely surprising that nine black Americans were massacred in their church in 2015, that there are 784 known hate groups in the US, or that white Americans, and particularly white Southerners, harbor unconscious negative bias toward black people. It’s not surprising that middle-income black families live in neighborhoods that are lower income than those of low-income white families, nor that in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), NC, a place with some of the lowest economic mobility in the nation, 49 percent of black children are in high-poverty schools, compared to only 6 percent of white children. It’s not surprising that the median net worth of white households is 13 times greater than that of black households and 10 times greater than that of Hispanic households and this racial wealth gap persists even when income and educational attainment levels are the same. And it’s not surprising that our recent history includes redlining that destroyed the value of homes in black neighborhoods, urban renewal projects that fragmented and displaced black communities, mass incarceration that criminalizes large segments of generations of men of color, and predatory home-ownership and banking practices that target people of color as they begin to build wealth.

Once we understand that history, we may not be surprised by continued racial disparities, but we must be outraged by them. South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond—someone with his own legacy to understand and reconcile—stood and spoke of the “true situation” last week:

It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness.

It is time to build that “roadway to a better world” and get on the road—even if it’s slow going and full of uncomfortable conversations; even if it means accepting responsibility for past injustice and opening our minds to hard realities. It’s the only way we’ll get there.

Data Dig: Economic Mobility in Greenville, SC

In Greenville, South Carolina, economic resurgence and downtown redevelopment are celebrated, but underlying equity and mobility issues remain. Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, Greenville is in the bottom ten for economic mobility of young people—sitting precariously above only a handful of other Southern metros, including Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta. We profiled Greenville and how leaders there are working to connect the city’s young people with economic prosperity in the State of the South report. (You read and download the full profile here.)

“A young person’s economic prospects should not be determined by his or her zip code,” says John Concklin, program investment manager at United Way of Greenville County. “Unfortunately, in the area known as the ‘White Horse Corridor,’ prospects for a successful future are tough—32 percent of households live in poverty; 66 percent have only a high school diploma or less; unemployment is greater than 25 percent in some sections; and the city’s lowest performing high schools are found here.”

To improve youth mobility, Greenville, like many Southern metros, needs to eliminate disparities in social and economic outcomes, which appear along geographic and racial lines. Let’s take a look at some data on growth and inequality in Greenville. (Some of the data below is from the National Equity Atlas—check it out for a trove of data on equity in all 50 states and the largest 150 metro areas).