African-American men who drop out of high school are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white males who fail to graduate, according a study by a Washington-based think tank on criminal justice.
The report, which will be released today by the Justice Policy Institute, shows that 52 percent of black male dropouts will have been incarcerated by their early 30s compared with 13 percent of white men who do not complete high school.
The authors of the report draw the conclusion that state governments, including Maryland's, are devoting too much money to prisons and not enough to education.
"States can find the money they need to reinvest in education and communities by reducing prison populations and creating alternatives to cut incarceration costs," the report states.
The report is critical of states that have cut K-12 education spending to balance their budgets in recent years while shielding prison expenditures.
"We take money from schools and put it into prisons, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for young people," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the liberal-leaning institute and a co-author of the study.
According to the report, as of 1999, 22 percent of all African-American men ages 30-34 had been incarcerated; only 3 percent of their white counterparts had been in prison. The ratio of college graduates to present or former prisoners among blacks in that group was about 1-to-2; among whites it was 10-to-1.
The statistics in the report do not account for percentages of white and black men who have been convicted of crimes - making it difficult to determine how much of the gap can be explained by crime rates and how much is a result of biased treatment.
Schiraldi said he believes systemic bias is an important factor, contending that whites convicted of offenses are given more breaks than blacks found guilty of similar crimes - in part because whites are more likely to be able to afford private lawyers.
Schiraldi added that he believes unconscious bias leads to harsher treatment of blacks at all levels: from probation officers to prosecutors to judges.
Bruce Western, the report's lead author, said from one-fifth to one-quarter of the American prison population is made up of relatively minor drug offenders.
"Drugs have driven the prison boom. That's been a large cause of the increase in state prison population," said Western, a Princeton University sociology professor.
George W. Liebmann, executive director of Baltimore's conservative Calvert Institute, agreed that the incarceration disparities were "an artifact of the war on drugs."
"There isn't any doubt there's overincarceration because of drug distribution," he said, putting much of the blame on mandatory minimum sentences.
However, Liebmann said the notion that education could be improved by shifting spending from prisons to schools is "simplistic."
Liebmann said he agrees that people with relatives who can help them are less likely to be treated harshly by the justice system but said that was hard to avoid: "You can't just draw the conclusion the system is rotten."