Mass Incarceration Is One of the Most Pressing Civil Rights Issues Today

Mass Incarceration

The disproportionate incarceration rate of minorities in general, and blacks in particular, is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time. A new EPI report argues that the United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped maintain the economic and social hierarchy predicated on race. In Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Robynn J.A. Cox, assistant professor at Spelman College and RCMAR Scholar at the USC Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, explains that the mass incarceration of minorities was not an accidental occurrence but the result of America’s legacy of racism. She examines how public policy, criminal justice officials, and the media have contributed to the hyperincarceration of minorities, especially black men.

“As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, it’s essential that we acknowledge how a biased criminal justice system and the subsequent mass incarceration of African Americans is wreaking havoc on the black community and preventing us from reaching King’s dream,” said Cox. “For example, although the right for blacks to vote has been enforced since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, mass incarceration policies have effectively taken this entitlement away from numerous African Americans. It is painfully obvious that the dream for civil rights has yet to be fully realized and cemented.”

Over the past 40 years, U.S. incarceration has grown at an extraordinary rate, and most of this growth can be accounted for by society’s choice for tough-on-crime policies (e.g., determinate sentencing, truth-in-sentencing laws, limiting discretionary parole boards, etc.) resulting in more individuals (committing less serious offenses) being sentenced to serve time, and longer prison sentences. For instance, from 1979 to 2009, there was a decrease in the share of individuals sentenced to state facilities for violent crimes and property crimes, but large increases in the proportion of individuals serving time for less serious crimes such as drug crimes and other crimes. This shift in focus occured after the federal government increased federal funding and resources to state and local law enforcement to support the war on drugs.  In order to obtain economic gains from the resulting prison boom, impoverished rural communities—and the private sector—began using prison construction as part of their economic development strategies, with hopes that prisons would be a recession-proof industry that would help to stimulate their economy through job creation and regional multiplier effects.

Though blacks have historically experienced incarceration rates above their proportion in society, it has worsened over time: By 1993 the proportion of black prison admissions was roughly 4 times their proportion in the population (a 91 percent increase from 1926). Moreover, racial disparities in incarceration persist over time at all education levels.  This hyperincarceration has led to disproportionate effects on black employment outcomes and earnings, families, and citizenship status. In fact, although low-skilled white male employment is hurt by an incarceration, research has found that previously incarcerated low-skilled white males are still ranked in the economic hierarchy at the same level or higher as low-skilled Hispanic and black men without criminal records. Finally, imprisonment leads to the loss of an individual’s ability to participate in the democratic process, and ultimately one’s citizenship, through felon disenfranchisement laws. Taken together, there is ample evidence that the criminal justice system has played an integral part in maintaining social and economic stratification along racial lines.

Discriminatory enforcement practices, such as racial profiling and differential treatment by prosecutors, have played a significant role in the mass incarceration of minorities. Evidence of unequal enforcement of the law can be seen by comparing drug use to drug arrest rates by race. Though black senior high school students indicate using cocaine and marijuana at lower rates in 1980, 1993, and 2009 than their white counterparts, blacks are arrested at much higher rates for possession and distribution of drugs.  Moreover, while the share of individuals serving time in state prisons for drug offenses that are black increased by almost 50 percent from 1986-2009, the share of whites decreased by 62 percent over this same time period.

“Systemic racial bias has led to the development of a dual criminal justice system, which is at the root of our mass incarceration epidemic,” said Cox. “Without racial bias, it is unlikely that the United States would have seen such unprecedented growth in incarceration. Therefore, to begin to address it and achieve the social and economic equality Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of over 51 years ago, we must follow King’s advice and become reeducated about race in America, and we have to wholeheartedly invest in the black community through education, job training, and employment programs.  Failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.”

This paper continues the Economic Policy Institute project The Unfinished March, which reviews America’s civil rights successes as well as the significant amount of civil rights work that remains to be done. Each report addresses a specific civil rights goal, the progress that has or has not been made, and, if necessary, the policy measures needed to fully realize the goal.

This is a press release from the Economic Policy Institute

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. zaqzaq

    The criminal justice system inherits the failures of our educational system.  I am going to go out on a limb without citing a source and take the position that individuals who fail to graduate from high school are more likely to enter the criminal justice system for a variety of reasons.  Poor performance may be attributed to drug addiction or mental health issues.  Looking beyond this factor you get to the community and family emphasis on the importance of education.  How is it that the Asian community has done well and the black community has failed.  Many uneducated Chinese and Japanese emigrated to this country generations ago and experienced severe discrimination.  The Chinese labor that was used to build the railroads worked in severe conditions.  Japanese were detained in camps during WWII at great economic loss.  The Japanese worked hard to assimilate into American culture.  Most families gave their children anglo first names and a Japanese middle name.  An emphasis on education as the road to success and integration was adopted by most families.  Today there are complaints about “dragon” or “tiger” moms who push their children to excel in educational and musical endeavors (not athletics).  With the end of affirmative action in the UC system the percentage of  white student remained fairly constant while the Asian percentage increased dramatically with a corresponding reduction in black and Hispanic students.  When the family/community standard is at a minimum a college education children grow up with that expectation.  Not going to college is looked at as a failure.  The question becomes how do you get black parents/communities to place the same emphasis on education as the Asian community?  How do you get them to make sure their children go to school, do their homework, get good grades, graduate from high school and set the expectation that their children will go to college?

    On another note I am perfectly content to not allow felons to vote or participate in the criminal justice system as jurors.  Individuals who rob, rape, steal, murder, sell drugs, molest children and other felonies are not good citizens.  Good citizenship should be a requirement for voting and jury service.  Instilling good citizenship in our youth is a family and community responsibility, much like the emphasis on education.   Responsible citizens vote and show up for jury service.

    1. Davis Progressive

      yeah i mean they passed laws like three strikes, 10-20-life for guns, and such a decade or two ago.  on the other hand, they amended three strikes in 2012, reduced penalties for minor crimes in 2014, and nearly overturned the death penalty in 2012.  so i’m not sure your overall point – the pendulum has swung back from where it was a decade or two ago.

      1. zaqzaq

        The big question is whether the crime rate, more importantly violent crime, will go up with the current modifications in the strikes law in 2012 and now prop 47.  The theory that an incarcerated criminal cannot do further harm to society will now be tested.  I wonder how many criminals with a violent history have been and now will be released into society to prey upon law abiding citizens based on changes in the law from Prop 36 and 47.  Is anyone tracking who is being released early due to these changes?  Maybe the Courts or the DA will provide some numbers in the future.

  2. tribeUSA

    Three policy changes that should help significantly:

    (1) Alternatives to incarceration for drug possession for personal use, and other minor nonviolent offences (e.g. community service, work/study options, ankle bracelet for repeat offenders)

    (2) Raise minimum wage to $11/hr, inflation adjusted subsequent years (so single person can live decently with 40-50 hrs/wk work at minimum wage).

    (3) Substantially cut back on both illegal and legal immigration (labor market less flooded, more job opportunities & better pay for citizens).

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