One out of four incarcerated people in the world are in the land of the free. Despite the United States only making up five percent of the global population, a quarter of all prisoners are held in American prisons. This is largely due to the 13th Amendment, which was implemented in 1865 to abolish slavery, but also established a new form of bondage: involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.
Rise in Prison Population
The war on drugs, spearheaded by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, was a major contributor to the dramatic rise in the prison population. This so-called “racial-neutral” campaign overwhelmingly targeted black Americans and other minorities, who are disproportionately detained, convicted, and imprisoned on substance offenses relative to their percentage in the overall population and among drug offenders. The Reagan administration furthered this problem with the introduction of stricter laws that led to an explosion of the prison population – almost doubling it to over 630,000. Under these laws, judges were given the power to sentence individuals to five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years in prison, or even life, depending on the quantity of substances involved. This disregarded personal circumstances and created harsher punishments for crack cocaine users (who are predominantly black and minority communities).
The Bill Clinton administration maintained mass incarceration with the implementation of stricter sentencing guidelines and longer prison terms for drug offenses. Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, popularly known as the 1994 crime law, which intensified the war on drugs. The 1994 crime law was enacted to combat decades of rising crime rates and its provisions included longer sentences, more aggressive policing, and the construction of new prisons. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, the 1994 crime law had resulted in a dramatic increase in incarceration, largely of people of color. Furthermore, the disproportionate effect of the war on drugs has resulted in a large racial disparity among individuals incarcerated for drug offenses – the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated for drug offenses are African American and Latino, even though those groups are no more likely to use or sell drugs than any other group in the United States.
Combating Racial Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System
The system of laws in the US makes sure to fill prisons in the most efficient way possible, particularly when it comes to incarcerating the most vulnerable in society, including minority communities, those with mental health issues, and the poor. Private prisons exploit this further, their owners receive higher paychecks when their facilities are filled. The Obama administration, however, introduced policy reforms that aimed to reduce the number of people in prison and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Racial Disparity in Incarceration Rates
The data speaks for itself: according to The Sentencing Project, black people are incarcerated nearly five times more than the rate of white people – 38.4% of inmates are black, while only 13.6% of Americans are black. Additionally, economic wealth is a major factor in the likelihood of incarceration. Those who grow up in more affluent areas are far less likely to end up in prison than those living below the poverty line – 19.5% of whom are black.
Pursuing an Equitable Society in the US
The facts are clear – the US criminal justice system has a history of unfairly targeting and incarcerating people of color, especially those from low-income backgrounds. The disproportionate rate of incarceration for African Americans and Latinos is a clear indication of the systemic racism that exists in the American criminal justice system. It is vital that steps are taken to address this ongoing injustice and work towards a fairer and more equitable society.