Reprinted with permission from Human Rights, 44:1, at 5-8. ©2019 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
We are living in America’s era of mass incarceration. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, this nation holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners—and many more people impacted by its crime policies. More than 2.1 million Americans are incarcerated in jails and prisons, up from less than 200,000 in 1972, while over 4.6 million more are on probation or parole. These numbers are not faceless. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the nation’s population, but constitute 28 percent of all arrests, 40 percent of the incarcerated, and 42 percent of those on death row. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are all more likely to be arrested, jailed awaiting trial, and sentenced to jail or prison when compared to white Americans. Perhaps the starkest statistic, recent data predicted one of every three black boys, and one of six Latino boys, born in 2001 would go to jail or prison within their lifetimes if current trends continue.
In some ways, these statistics outline a contemporary problem—but the challenges they describe are legacies of systems much older and deeper. The same judgments about criminality, race, and control that led one Mississippi official in 1865 to remark, “Emancipation will require a system of prisons,” still color our political discourse and policy outcomes. And the widespread yet largely unknown story of racial terror lynching continues to shape our lives.