New on the Living Cities blog: Why Mass Incarceration Is a ‘Levee Issue’


By Sherrie Deans and Nadia Owusu, contributors to the Living Cities blog.

There is a lot in the news these days about the U.S. criminal justice system, from protests of ‘stop and frisk’ policies to a much discussed new study from The American Civil Liberties Union that found that while marijuana use between blacks and whites is about even, blacks were almost four times more likely to get arrested for possession in 2010. Despite the volume of information and chatter out there, the extraordinary burden that this places on us as a nation is not often clearly articulated.

In 2012, Living Cities began asking ourselves and our problem solving network—from our 22 member institutions, to our grantees, partners, and other influential organizations, practitioners and innovators—what the big ‘levee issues’ of our time are. The question was originally posed by Ronn Richard, President & CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, at a gathering of our Board of Directors: “If the nation had identified and addressed the weaknesses of the levees in New Orleans before they broke, we wouldn’t be working so hard for the past six years to address the fallout from their failure.” We committed ourselves to working to identify those issues that unless addressed would leave all of our efforts to create opportunities for low- income people and improve the cities where they live ‘under water’.

Today, the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, both on a per capita basis and in terms of total prison population. More than 500,000 of the 2.3 million people in America’s prisons are behind bars for nonviolent drug offences. And, this reality disproportionately affects communities of color and low- income people.  Sixty five out of every hundred men of color in America face incarceration during their lifetimes. On their own, these are sobering statistics. When you unpack them to reveal how mass incarceration is ravaging families and entire communities, it quickly becomes clear that this is a levee issue, and that the levee is crumbling fast.

Read the full article on the Living Cities blog.