Criminal Justice Reform: Ending the New Jim Crow

  • Criminal Justice Reform Statement
    The present state of the criminal justice system in its operations and consequences stands as an extreme distortion and violation of a just and democratic society. The results are mass incarceration and deprivation of civil and human rights for millions of U. S. citizens extremely disproportionately focused on people of color. It represent a system of racial and social control that conflicts with basic Unitarian Universalist values and beliefs including: justice, equity and compassion in human relations; the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

    Dr. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues that these current policies act, in new ways, to oppress African Americans as severely as did the old “Jim Crow” system from the 1870s to the mid-1960s:

    The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China and Iran.

    The racial dimension…is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D. C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all of those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.

    These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. This is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80% of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.

  • The New Jim Crow
    Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (New York, NY: The New Press, 2010), pp. 6-7.

    The New Jim Crow is made up of many interconnected pieces: the laws of a politicized “war on drugs;” draconian minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes; racial profiling; disenfranchisement of prisoners and of the ex-incarcerated;privatization of the prison system resulting in an economic incentive to maintain and increase the prison population as a goal in itself.

    New Jersey incarceration rates are consistent with national patterns and the New Jim Crow system. The NJ Comprehensive Drug Reform Act (CDRA) of 1986 was one of the harshest drug laws in the country. Follow-up legislation added many new and increased drug penalties. The total state prison population has grown from approximately 3,200 in 1971 to a peak of almost 31,000 in 1999. Figures available for 2003 indicate that approximately 15,000 new people enter the state prison system each year and that New Jersey has the highest rate in the nation in the proportion of those admitted for drug offenses (48% compared to a national average of 31%). Although African Americans comprise only 13% of the state population, they were 70% of those admitted for drug offenses in 2003 (latest available figures). Overall, although African Americans and Hispanics together are 29% of the state population, they are 79% of all prison admissions. There is no data suggesting that drug use in New Jersey varies from national studies which show no racial or ethnic difference in drug use. A 2004 study showed that reported illicit drug use in New Jersey at 6.9% was below the national average of 8.1% of the population.

    As people of faith, we are called to join the fight to end a system that unjustly ruins the lives of many thousands of men and women, devastates their families and communities, and burdens taxpayers across the country with the exorbitant cost of mass incarceration. Just as the New Jim Crow is made up of different but interconnected policies, our fight against it will have different fronts. Visit the UULMNJ website and its companion Public Policy Network website for the latest information on our activities.

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