Over the past four decades, our country’s incarceration rate has more than quadrupled and is now the largest in world history. About one in every 31 people is either incarcerated, on probation or on parole. The Southern Law Poverty Center has stated that “this vast expansion of the corrections system-which has been called ‘The New Jim Crow’, is the direct result of a failed, decades-long war on drugs and a ‘law and order’ movement that began amid the urban unrest of the late 1960s, just after the civil rights era.”
There are vast racial disparities within our system. The system stigmatizes young black men and incarcerates them at an alarming rate. They are unfairly targeted and punished. People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record.[i]
Black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population[ii], and are consistently documented by the U.S. government to use drugs at similar rates to people of other races.[iii] But Black people comprise 30 percent of those arrested for drug law violations[iv]– and nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations. [v]
These statistics however do not show how the mass incarceration destroys families. One in nine Black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children. [vi] The punishment far exceeds just being in jail and creating single parent households. With a criminal record people are denied child custody, voting rights, gainful employment, professional licensing, student financial aid, public housing, small business loans, and various other types of public assistance.
The good news is that there is policy change on the horizon. We have seen decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, however; helping more people receive drug treatment can help to combat the root cause addictions and hopefully change a person’s path. To help change one’s path there also needs to be an end to policies that exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from rights and opportunities. These include the barriers to public housing, public assistance, financial aid for higher education and job training.
[i] Drug Police Alliance: The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race June 2015
[ii] U.S. Census Bureau, Quick Facts (2014)
[iii] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Table 1.19B.
[iv] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States, 2013,” Table 43.
[v] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Justice Statistics Program; Carson, “Prisoners in 2013,” Table 14.
[vi] Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010), 4.