Social justice issues in America: Mass incarceration

January 14, 2021

A social justice issue that is extremely troubling and continues to be a challenge for African-Americans and people of color in the 21st century is mass incarceration. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” (1) in an interview with Frontline (2) defined mass incarceration as: “a massive system of racial and social control. It is the process by which people are swept into the criminal justice system, branded criminals and felons, locked up for longer periods of time than most other countries in the world who incarcerate people who have been convicted of crimes, and then released into a permanent second-class status in which they are stripped of basic civil and human rights, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, and access to public benefits.” Mass incarceration came about because of the “tough on crime” initiative dating back to the 1980s and 90s. Now the number of the incarcerated has exploded. What’s alarming is the racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

The Sentencing Project, who has worked for fairness in sentencing laws and a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system for nearly 30 years, posted this research in an article entitled: “Criminal Justice Facts” (3) noting:

• Today people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population but 67 percent of the criminal justice system.
• African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested, once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.
• Black males are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.

The Sentencing Project indicates the excessive sentencing practices in the U.S. are largely counter-productive and extremely costly.

For one reason, incarceration is ineffective at reducing certain kinds of crimes, especially crimes committed in groups and drug crimes. When people get locked up for these offenses, they are easily replaced on the streets by others seeking an income or struggling with an addiction.

Secondly, people tend to age-out of crime. Research shows crime starts to peak in the mid-to late teenage years and begins to decline when individuals are in their mid- 20s. After that, crime drops sharply as adults reach their 30s and 40s.

The news involving youth is just as troubling. An African American male born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison while a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance of the same fate. Ending the cradle-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration takes us all. “It’s time to reroute our children, youths and parents from prison to college and productive work” according to the Children’s Defense Fund.(4) Because of the number of U.S. citizens incarcerated, there’s an outcry for prison reform. While changes have taken place because of advocacy, there’s still work to be done.

1 Alexander, Michelle (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
2 Locked Up In America. (April 2014). Public Broadcasting Service.
3 Sentencing Project, “Criminal Justice Facts.”
4 Children’s Defense Fund, Ending the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and Mass Incarceration – The New American Jim Crow” by Marian Wright,

Next week: Social Justice Issues in America (Prison Reform)

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