The Economics of Stop and Frisk

The inequitable application of our laws and unjustifiable focus of the criminal justice system on people of color has always been big business.

By Imara Jones Aug 18, 2013

Last week, Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin struck-down New York City’s controversial stop and frisk police policy as unconstitutional. In the wake of the ruling, many have focused on the social and racial justice implications of Judge Scheindlin’s decision, but there are also important economic justice ones to consider.

Aimed at black and Latino teenage boys and young men under the age of 25, over 4 million stop and frisk searches were conducted during the last decade, with just one out of 10 resulting in criminal charges or a citation. In certain neighborhoods of New York City, it’s difficult to find either a boy or young man of color who hasn’t been stopped.

Despite their inherent unfairness, policies such as stop and frisk are hard to get rid of. That’s because they form a link in the profit-centered, school-to prison-pipeline that’s underwriting the growth of an entire sector of our economy: the multi-billion dollar prison industry.

Sadly, the targeting of people of color by authorities for profit is not new. Since the nation’s founding, the policing of black physicality on the scale of stop and frisk has had an economic component.

During slavery, surveillance and violence directed against black people by plantation owners were designed to keep these wildly profitable economic machines humming along without interruption. In the 100 years after the Civil War, physical cruelty was employed to force African Americans into the economically unfair enterprise of sharecropping or working for wages lower than their white counterparts in northern factories.

More recently, since the 1980s, changes to state and national laws which target and criminalize teenagers and young men–effectively creating a dragnet for them–are a driving reason why the United States prison population has swelled to 2.5 million, the world’s largest. Troublingly, there’s a lot of private money being made off of that population.

According to CNBC, more Americans work in the booming prison industry than in the auto industry. Entire towns and parts of rural America are now dependent upon the economic activity generated by these growing employers. In Arizona, the for-profit prison industry was behind a rewrite of immigration detention laws, with the aim of increasing incarceration for profit.

The key issue is that the inequitable application of our laws and unjustifiable focus of the criminal justice system on people of color is big business.