By: Tim Fasano – Senior, Religious Studies
The most recent statistics, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, reveal that 6,741,400 people were supervised by adult correctional systems in the U.S. in 2015. According to an article from the Washington Post, “though only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population.” That five percent accounts for 2,145,100 individuals who are currently locked behind bars in this country.
To offer a little more perspective, the countries with the next highest number of people imprisoned are China, with 1,649,804, and Russia, with 630,155. This is the reality of mass incarceration in the United States, and it is one of many examples of a criminal justice system which is failing.
Sadly, it is impossible to speak of mass incarceration within the U.S. without touching upon race. As of the 2010 census, whites make up 64 percent of the U.S. population while African-Americans make up 13 percent.
Yet, when one looks at the racial makeup of the American prison populations, African-Americans make up 40 percent while whites make up only 39 percent. This incredible disparity should raise eyebrows and cause one to question, how can this be?
It would be a gross mistake to infer from these statistics that people of color commit crime at a higher rate than whites when the use and selling of drugs is the same among both groups. So why the disparity? The development of this issue is complex and deeply rooted within the fabric of American society, (I highly recommend the recent documentary “13th” for greater insight and exploration of this topic).
People of color have been targeted by unjust elements of the criminal justice system since the end of slavery. The 13th Amendment, which famously abolished slavery, did so for all cases “except as a punishment for crime.” This exception would come to be the bane for numerous African-Americans since. It began with simple laws targeting actions and practices predominantly associated with blacks, allowing for their arrest and enslavement via the penal system.
For many, these actions taken towards African-Americans in a pre-Civil Rights Movement America probably come as no surprise. But it is what has occurred since the 1960s that many do not know.
People may argue that racism towards African-Americans ended in the 1960s, however, this could not be further from the truth. Author Michelle Alexander labels our country’s current struggle with mass incarceration as The New Jim Crow because of its blatant racial elements.
Through the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s presidents from both political parties instituted policies presented under the auspices of getting “tough on crime” or declaring a “war on drugs,” but in reality targeted people who are poor and of color. Take, for example, laws targeting the use and possession of crack and powder cocaine.
According to the ACLU, these two are essentially the same drug, the former primarily used by people who are poor and/or of color and the latter primarily used by whites. The disparity in sentencing was a shocking 100:1, crack to powder cocaine, meaning people of color were receiving far longer prison sentences.
To put this in perspective, this disparity was only reduced in 2010, but is still at 18:1. Other policies such as mandatory minimums and three-strike laws further contribute to these unjust aspects of our criminal justice system, and place more African-American males in prison.
So racism exists, and it significantly affects our nation’s criminal justice system. As our prison population grows, and communities of color continue to struggle under the burden of an unjust system, we as a nation must ask ourselves, how long will we allow this to continue? The injustices within our criminal justice system go far beyond mass incarceration, and they cry out for a response.
Photo Courtesy of centerforprisonreform.org