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Michael Kouraba headshot

Jay-Z's Got 99 Problems, But Prop 47 Aint One


Criminal justice reform advocates (and hip-hop fans) rejoice: Avowedly apolitical rap mogul Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z) used the stage at a recent San Francisco concert to throw his support behind California’s Proposition 47 (Prop 47).

Not known for forays into politics, Jay stepped out of his comfort zone just three months before Californians will have a chance to vote on what could be the most important ballot initiative in the state’s history.  (No, I haven’t forgotten about Prop 8.)

If approved, Prop 47, known as the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, will reduce the penalty for most nonviolent crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor and direct the money saved from incarcerating fewer individuals -- estimated to be between $150 million and $250 million each year -- to a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.

Prop 47’s potential effects

If passed, Prop 47 will have an immediate impact on California’s prisons and the state’s otherwise prison-bound population.

First and foremost, the initiative would reclassify low-level shoplifting and theft, possession of narcotics, and possession of marijuana -- all currently felonies -- as misdemeanors.  In California, three-quarters of those incarcerated are serving time for nonviolent offenses, and roughly one in six is locked up for nothing more than drug possession, so the future impact would be great.  In addition to keeping low-level, nonviolent offenders out of prison in the future, the initiative would also allow roughly 10,000 current prisoners to seek re-sentencing.

Second, as Jay-Z noted from the stage, the savings generated by Prop 47 would also allow California to “build more schools, less [sic] prisons,” as well as to increase mental health services for at-risk populations and improve services for victims.  According to the text of the proposed measure, each year the money saved by the initiative would be distributed as follows:

  • The lions-share (65 percent) would be devoted to supporting mental health and substance abuse treatment for those already in the criminal justice system, with an eye toward reducing recidivism of low-level, nonviolent offenders;

  • A quarter of the savings would be earmarked for reducing truancy and/or supporting those who have been the victims of crime or are most at-risk of dropping out of public K-12 schools; and

  • The final 10 percent would be used to make grants to trauma recovery centers to provide services to victims of crime.

America’s broken criminal justice system

California’s prisons, unconstitutionally overcrowded as they may be, are still just one part of a larger, national problem:  America’s criminal justice system is broken.  Consider the following:  (i) In the last 35 years, America’s prison population has grown by about 800 percent (yes, that’s an eight with two zeroes) to 2.3 million people, leading to the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world; (ii) even though we only have 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its prisoners, a proportion so staggeringly absurd one is apt to glaze over its significance; and (iii) nonviolent offenders constitute 90 percent of the federal prison population.

As The Economist put it, in America, “[M]inor crimes are punished severely, serious ones ferociously.”  Of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans, at least 80,000 are in solitary confinement or some type of segregated housing designed specifically to create feelings of claustrophobia and sensory deprivation, often leading to great psychological harm.  The human cost of the American incarceration system is perhaps impossible to calculate; the financial cost is calculable but astonishing: $80 billion a year, or $35,000 per inmate.

For people of color, the scourge of America’s prison-industrial complex is simply a fact of life; our incarceration policies have been called the “New Jim Crow” in light of the disproportionate and detrimental impact they have on people of color and their families and communities.  The Sentencing Project estimates that 1 in 3 black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives, and 1 in 10 black men in their 30s can be found in prison or jail every single day.

These figures are no accident -- they are the result of disproportionate arrest and sentencing practices.  According to an ACLU study, for example, despite roughly equal rates of marijuana use among blacks and whites, blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession.  In Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where 18-year-old Michael Brown was recently shot dead by the police, 93 percent of arrests and 86 percent of traffic stops were of blacks, even though Ferguson’s population is just two-thirds black, and whites in Ferguson are much more likely to have contraband on them when stopped.

The same disturbing trends are found in major cities like New York.  Once arrested, sentences of black men are 20 percent higher than those of white men convicted of similar crimes, an issue exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2005 decision in U.S. v. Booker.

Jay’s story and reach

None of these statistics or sad stories should be news to Jay-Z.  After all, while he’s now worth upwards of $500 million, Shawn Carter the boy grew up in a blighted part of Brooklyn notorious for drugs and violence, where the cycle of incarceration was part of the community’s fabric.  In his track “Where I’m From,” he describes the Marcy Houses -- the Bedford-Stuyvesant public housing projects that he once called home -- as a place where “you can't put your vest away and say you'll wear it tomorrow, ‘cause the day after we'll be saying, ‘Damn, I was just with him yesterday.'”  Jay’s drug-slinging past is also no secret.

Perhaps in part because of his past, Jay-Z’s political reticence -- particularly on issues relating to the African American community -- has invited some harsh criticism in the past.  Despite endorsing President Obama (and engaging in certain charitable works), the rapper has said he has “zero interest” in politics.  Like many, Jay’s apathy appears to be rooted in what he sees as the disconnect between politicians and the people they are elected to serve.  In a 2010 interview with the Guardian, he said he sees politicians as “a bunch of liars” and politics as “a bunch of self-interest. It's not about the people, it's about [politicians] themselves and their rise to power.”

So it came as a bit of a surprise when he used the high-profile “On the Run” tour to endorse Prop 47.  The importance of Jay-Z’s support for the initiative has to do with his reach.  In addition to being a pop-culture icon and one of the most successful rappers in the world, he’s also an unbelievably influential businessman (and “a Business, Man”).  When Jay-Z partnered with Samsung to give Samsung customers early access to his latest album, "Magna Carta...Holy Grail" (a deal valued at $20 million), the company purchased a million advance copies of the record, giving it platinum status before it even came out.  He’s been photographed in the White House Situation Room.  His Roc Nation record label is home to the likes of Rihanna, Shakira, and Santigold.  Roc Nation Sports, launched in 2013 as Roc Nation’s “sports management” wing, already handles star athletes like Robinson Cano, Kevin Durant, and Victor Cruz.  In 2007, Jay sold his stake in Rocawear, the clothing company he co-founded, for $204 million in cash.  And then there’s his marriage to -- and touring partnership with -- Beyonce, a public force in her own right.

In short, as a figure in popular culture Jay-Z’s influence is unparalleled and his reach unmatched.  If he remains vocal, his support could give Prop 47 the push it needs to pass in November.  Regardless of the outcome in this fall, Jay should be applauded.  Let's hope his efforts continue and aren't for naught.

Image credit: Flickr/v1ctor

Michael Kourabas headshotMichael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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