America's criminal justice system is the largest in the world. In fact, the state of Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita than any other, making Oklahoma the area in which most people in the world are incarcerated. To put this into perspective, here's a lovely little graph that demonstrates this perfectly.
Accepting our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate means believing that Oklahomans are the worst people
Accepting our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate means believing that Oklahomans are the worst people okpolicy.org
If you're not familiar with the American criminal justice system, you may be wondering why there is such a high incarceration rate in the United States and why it's significantly higher than it's allied such as the UK. The high incarceration rates are not due to rapidly increasing rates of crime, in fact, crime rates have dropped in America, yet over the past 40 years, the US has seen a 500% increase in its prison rates. Furthermore, the US constitutes 5% of the world's population but 21% of its prison population. Whilst this is shocking to some and definitely needs attention paying to it, what I want to discuss is the racial disparities in this system.
African Americans are incarcerated at an unprecedented rate in comparison to their white counterparts, for example, African Americans constitute 13% of the population but approximately 38% of the prison population. In fact, statistically, 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime in comparison to 1 in 9 white men. These statistics evidence clear racial disparities and inequity in the system and if you think that it's because black communities have higher crime rates, this isn't necessarily true. Yes, they are targeted more by police -for example, a study in New York's' stop and frisk campaign, over a three month period 87% of those stopped were black or Latino and black. However, arrest rates show that annually 6.1 million arrests are of whites and 2.4 million are of African Americans, therefore, there is clearly something that happens from arrest to incarceration that accounts for these disparities.
It is not just incarceration alone that is disproportionate but the application of the death penalty. For example, 42% of death row inmates are African American despite 72% of the population being white as well as the fact that 75% of white deaths trigger a death penalty case, although whites are only the victim 50% of the time. These disparities are further demonstrated by the fact that out of 310 death penalty cases, 290 of them had a black defendant and a white victim. This demonstrates how white lives are valued more in American society as these are the victims that encourage the death penalty as punishment.
There are many reasons as to why these disparities occur, for example, implicit and overt racial bias, institutionalized racism, cash bail, etc. However, the most shocking factor for me is private prisons. Yes, there is an industry that makes money off incarcerating individuals, seem sketchy? Well, that's because it is. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) increased their profits by 57% between 1996-1997 thanks to mass incarceration, how do they do this? Racially bias legislation that has racist undertones. This is evident in mandatory sentencing, War on drugs policies that affect African American communities, e.g the 1:100 crack, cocaine ratio (this meant that 1 gram of crack got you the same sentence as 100 grams of cocaine which disproportionately affected black communities), stand your ground policies, the list goes on.
Instead of just producing alarming statistics of high incarceration rates, it's important to understand the devastating effect this has on communities. Individuals that have been incarcerated are often disenfranchised. In fact, there are currently 6.1 million individuals disenfranchised in the United States, 77 percent of which live in their communities, either under probation or parole supervision or having completed their sentence. Therefore, people that have served their time are still unable to exercise their rights as a citizen to vote. Ignoring the fact that those who have served their time should be able to integrate back into society, this has devastating effects on smaller communities.
The more disenfranchised voters your community has, the less representation you have.
This means that elected officials of a said community may not have their best interest at hearts and are more likely to care less about criminal justice reform. Therefore, the community does not have someone understanding of its needs and without adequate reform, these horrifying statistics are permitted.
The disparities in incarceration also has an economic impact on these communities and families. When someone is incarcerated, they lose their job or are away from home for extended periods of time, this means a two-person household income turns to a single parent household income. This means that targeted communities tend to be lower socio-economic households because of this, meaning the general income of the area suffers an economic dip. Furthermore, when that person is released from prison, it is more difficult to find a job than prior to incarceration, for example, 80% of US employers perform criminal background checks on potential employees, this means that 1 in 4 ex-offenders are left unemployed. This means that unemployment rates soar which not only effects the local economy but also increased the likelihood of recidivism rates, this means that targeted communities that are predominantly African American have difficulty climbing the socio-economic ladder which keeps them in poverty or pulls them into the criminal justice system as this correlates with the likelihood of committing a crime.
So, how can you help? The only thing I can do as a non-citizen is basically raised awareness, and encourage you all to do the same and for the American readers; vote. You have the power to vote out elected bodies that don't do enough for criminal justice reform. You can contact senators and representatives and ask them to vote on criminal justice reform bills. Research bills and ask your representatives to vote on them. You can get involved with prison reform initiatives and request a citizen ride along with the police so you can see their perspective.
You may just be one voice, but you have the opportunity to be one voice in an entire movement, I encourage you to use it.