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Mass Incarceration: Understanding Racial Disparities

Mass Incarceration

Despite making up close to 5% of the global population, the U.S. has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700% ­­–  2.3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime. 

One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys—compared to one of every 17 white boys. At the same time, women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States.

‪There are twice as many people sitting in local jails awaiting trial and presumed innocent than in the entire federal prison system. And each year, 650,000 men and women nationwide return from prison to their communities. They face nearly 50,000 federal, state, and local legal restrictions that make it difficult to reintegrate back into society. (Continue reading from ACLU)

Race and the Criminal Justice System

After slavery was abolished in 1865, Southern states, where more than 90 percent of Black Americans lived, embraced criminal justice as a means of racial control. Discriminatory “Black Codes” led to the imprisonment of unprecedented numbers of Black men, women, and children, who were returned to slavery-like conditions through forced labor and convict leasing systems that lasted well into the 20th century.

Criminal laws also were used against Civil Rights protestors, who were denounced as “law breakers” and faced arrest, incarceration, and police brutality. These courageous campaigns earned many victories, but policies to combat racial inequality, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have not targeted criminal justice, where outcomes are still impacted by the same racial bias and inequality that pervade American society. Mass incarceration today stands as a legacy of past abuses and continues to limit opportunities in our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate; 2.3 million Americans are in prison today. Fueled by the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing policies, mass incarceration has a clear racial impact: 70 percent of American prisoners are non-white. The average American has a 1 in 20 chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, but that rate is much higher for Latino men (1 in 6) and African American men (more than 1 in 3) than for white men (1 in 23). Strikingly, 1 in 9 Black men under age 25 lives under some form of restrained liberty: in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole. (Continue reading from the Equal Justice Initiative)

Mass Incarceration, Stress, and Black Infant Mortality

Structural racism is defined as a system of public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms that work in reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial inequality. The criminal justice system is perhaps the clearest example of structural racism in the United States. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the overwhelming burden of contact with the system has fallen on communities of color, especially African Americans. African American adults are five times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. According to data detailed in this issue brief, African Americans are twice as likely as their white counterparts to have a family member imprisoned at some point during their childhood. With overall incarceration rates more than 500 percent higher than they were forty years ago, black Millennials and post-Millennials are at greater risk of contact with the system than any previous generation. In fact, a new CAP analysis finds that 1 in 4 black Millennials had an incarcerated loved one before they even turned 18. For those born in the early 1990s, the rate is almost 1 in 3.

Mass incarceration has long-term physiological effects that contribute to a range of health issues, including mental health disorders, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, HIV, and Hepatitis C. Although not as well-studied, mass incarceration can also directly and indirectly affect infant mortality. While its direct effects are well-documented, its indirect effects are pervasive and damaging but largely unrecognized. When incarcerated, an individual can face increased risk of sexual violence and infectious illness; loss of connection with family and friends; as well as trauma resulting from draconian prison policies and practices. Furthermore, the incarceration of a loved one or breadwinner can cause families and friends significant emotional distress, loss of income and property, and residential instability. These experiences put affected individuals at a heightened risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.

Based off new analysis and existing evidence, the Center for American Progress believes the toxic stress from contact with the criminal justice system has contributed to the disparity in rates of black and white infant mortality. In fact, experts estimate that infant mortality rates today would be 7.8 percent lower and that disparities between black and white women would be 15 percent smaller if incarceration rates had remained at 1970s levels. Targeted interventions are necessary to close the gap and bring the United States up to par with other developed countries. (Continue reading from the Center for American Progress)

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