The New Jim Crow? (US Incarceration System)


* 1 in every 14 black U.S. black men was imprisoned in 2001, compared with 1 in 106 white men.

* 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 35 was behind bars in 2006 and a much larger percentage was under parole, probation or some other form of penal control.

* The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than did South Africa at the pinnacle of apartheid.

* In Washington D.C., home now to the nation’s first black president, 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prisons.

* On any given day, nearly a third (30 percent) of black males ages 20 to 29 is under some form of correctional supervision.

* Blacks make up 12 percent of the overall U.S. population but account for more than 45 percent of the nation’s prisoners.

* One in three black U.S. adult males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record.


According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “mass incarceration” constitutes today “the single most damaging manifestation” of racial oppression in the U.S.

She lays out the case for this thesis in the first four minutes of the video below. (Note: the presentation after the 4-minute mark is presented in politically partisan terms, criticizing Republicans. Alexander criticizes Democrats even more severely, however, elsewhere [see below].)


Congressional Budget Office–“The Federal Population Buildup”

“Since the early 1980s, there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the number of inmates incarcerated in the federal prison system” (1). Between 1930 and 1980, “the federal prison population increased by approximately 12,000 inmates”; but between 1980 and 2013, the prison population increased to nearly 219,000, or “on average, by … 6,100 inmates each fiscal year” (1, 2). The trend has only been amplified, with the average yearly increase from 1990-2009 nearly double the yearly increase from 1980-1989 (2).

The “School to Prison Pipeline”

US Government v. City of Meridian, Mississippi (2012)

“Defendants … routinely and systematically arrest and incarcerate children, including for minor school rule infractions …. Defendants do not afford children in the juvenile justice system even the minimum procedural safeguards required by the Constitution” (1). “Defendants … actions punish children … so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience, and deprive these children of liberty and educational opportunities on an ongoing basis.” “During the 2006 [through the first half of the] 2010 school years, all of the students referred to law enforcement by the District were black, all of the students expelled were black, and 96 percent of the students suspended were black” (8). “Defendants in this case collectively help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline”; “Meridian Police Department … arrests all students referred to [it] by the [school] District, which employs a system of severe and arbitrary discipline that disproportionately impacts black children” (9). “Meridian Police Department … responds to referrals of students from the [school]” involving behaviors “including disrespect, refusal to follow the directions of a teacher, and profanity” (11).


“What do these school kids have in common? The teenage girl with a bladder disorder who left class without permission, ignoring a teacher and racing for a bathroom rather than wet herself; the boy who was rude to a school administrator; another who was tardy. They are children of color who, as a result of breaking minor school rules, were allegedly arrested and thrown into a juvenile detention facility in Meridian, Mississippi. It appears to be the most blatant case in a nationwide phenomenon that the U.S. Department of Justice, in a 37-page lawsuit, calls a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Following an eight-month investigation and a two-month warning period, the Justice Department in October filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the Mississippi Department of Youth Services (DYS) and local Youth Court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young for violating the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights of Meridian public school children.”


‘ “The Meridian School District’s handling of school discipline that denied so many African-American children access to school parallels the segregation that was outlawed in the United States nearly 60 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education,” said Derrick Johnson, President of the Mississippi NAACP. He continues: “In Meridian, where officials fought ardently to block school integration in the 1960s, the unfair treatment of African-American schoolchildren is reminiscent of these historic battles over access to public education. This amendment to Meridian’s school desegregation order, Barnhardt and U.S. v. Meridian Municipal Separate School District, will, at long last, ensure that all of Meridian’s children are given a fair shot at getting an education and achieving their dreams.” …

‘ “Meridian was an egregious example of a school district running a ‘dual discipline system,’ where African-American schoolchildren were punished disproportionately, causing grave harm to the students. The school discipline was executed in a manner that is the modern manifestation of the “dual school system” that was prohibited by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education,” said human rights attorney, Shakti Belway, who worked closely with the families in Meridian.’


Northwestern University Sociology Study, “The Mark of a Criminal Record” (2003)

“With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released each year …. This article focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. … The findings of this study [conducted in Milwaukee] reveal an important, and much underrecognized, mechanism of stratification. A criminal record presents a major barrier to employment, with important implications for racial disparities” (937).

“The expansion of the prison population has been particularly consequential for blacks. The incarceration rage for young black men in the year 2000 was nearly 10%, compared to just over 1% for white men int eh same age group. Young black men today have a 28% likelihood of incarceration during their lifetime, a figure that rises above 50% among young black high school dropouts” (939).

“[M]y interest here is in what might be termed the ‘credentialing’ aspect fo the criminal justice system. Those sent to prison are institutionally branded as a particular class of individuals–as are college graduates or welfare recipients …. The ‘negative credential’ associated with a criminal record represents a unique mechanism of stratification, in that it is the state that certifies particular individuals in ways that qualify them for discrimination or social exclusion” (942).

“[T]here is a large and significant effect of a criminal record [on successful employment outcomes], with 34% of whites without criminal records receiving callbacks [during the study], relative to only 17% of whites with criminal records. A criminal record thereby reduces the likelihood of callback [for whites] by 50%. …

“The effect of race in these findings is strikingly large. Among blacks without criminal records, only 14% received callbacks, relative to 34% of white noncriminals. In fact, even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17% [callbacks]) than blacks without criminal records (14%)” (955, 957-58).

“No longer a peripheral institution, the criminal justice system has become a dominant presence in the lives of young disadvantaged men, playing a key role in the sorting and stratifying of labor market opportunities” (962).

Paul Street:

“Beyond sheer magnitude, a second aspect of America’s incarceration boom is its heavily racialized nature. On any given day, Chaiken reported, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are “under correctional supervision” ‹either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. Especially chilling is a statistical model used by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine the lifetime chances of incarceration for individuals in different racial and ethnic groups. Based on current rates, it predicts that a young Black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. The corresponding statistic for white men in the same age group is 4 percent.”


“Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in democratic life which is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in 1 of every 13 African Americans unable to vote.”


Michelle Alexander, On Democrats and Incarceration:

“Democrats have actually been much worse than Republicans when it comes to the drug war. It was Bill Clinton who escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessor ever dreamed possible. And it was Bill Clinton and the so-called “new Democrats” who pushed through laws barring drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and barring drug felons from food stamps for the rest of their lives. Pregnant women, people with HIV and AIDS are barred even from receiving food stamps if they were caught with drugs and charged with a felony. Clinton, in his zeal to win over those so-called “white swing voters,” ramped up the drug war and “ended welfare as we knew it.” In my view, the movement that must be built has to fundamentally change the nature of our political system – not just get more Democrats in office.”

Crack v. Powder Cocaine


“In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. The scientifically unjustifiable 100:1 ratio meant that people faced longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine – two forms of the same drug. Most disturbingly, because the majority of people arrested for crack offenses are African American, the 100:1 ratio resulted in vast racial disparities in the average length of sentences for comparable offenses. On average, under the 100:1 regime, African Americans served virtually as much time in prison for non-violent drug offenses as whites did for violent offenses.”

Human Rights Watch, On the US Incarceration System

“The enormous prison population in the United States partly reflects harsh sentencing practices contrary to international law, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. The sentencing practices include disproportionately long prison terms, mandatory sentencing without parole, and treating youth offenders as adults. The US maintains the world’s largest incarcerated population, at 1.6 million, and its highest per capita incarceration rate.”


incarceration2 incarceration3

This entry was posted in Inequality in US, Race and policy in US and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s