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The Carceral State

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It’s entirely possible that in 100 years, historians will look back on the early 21st century United States and remark not only on the racist prison system that shows how little advanced we are from the Jim Crow era but also how little most Americans, even most liberals, really cared about the issue. Yet the imprisonment of millions is a really defining characteristic of the country today:

Mass incarceration’s effects are not confined to the cell block. Through the inescapable stigma it imposes, a brush with the criminal-justice system can hamstring a former inmate’s employment and financial opportunities for life. The effect is magnified for those who already come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Black men, for example, made substantial economic progress between 1940 and 1980 thanks to the post-war economic boom and the dismantling of de jure racial segregation. But mass incarceration has all but ground that progress to a halt: A new University of Chicago study found that black men are no better off in 2014 than they were when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act 50 years earlier.

The common retort is that people of color statistically commit more crimes, although criminologists and scholars like Michelle Alexander have consistently found no correlation between the incarceration rate and the crime rate. Claims about a “black pathology” also fall short. But police scrutiny often falls most heavily on people of color nonetheless. In New York City alone, officers carried out nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stops targeted black and Hispanic individuals, although they constitute only half the city’s population. Overall, NYPD officers stopped and frisked more young black men in New York than actually live there. Similar patterns of discrimination can be found nationwide, especially on drug-related charges. Black and white Americans use marijuana at an almost-equal rate, but blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession nationally. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, that arrest disparity jumps to a factor of five.

The collective impact of these policies is as rarely discussed as it is far-reaching. Mass incarceration touches almost every corner of modern American society. Any meaningful discourse on racism, poverty, immigration, the drug wars, gun violence, the mental-health crisis, or income inequality is incomplete without addressing the societal ramifications of imprisoning Americans by the millions for long stretches of time with little hope for rehabilitation.

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