The United States has a problem. Well, it has significantly more than one, but many — police brutality, civil rights issues, the war on drugs — can be traced back to one overarching issue: incarceration rates. In the U.S. right now, one in every 100 Americans is in jail — roughly 2.3 million people. With only four percent of the global population, we are responsible for the incarceration of 15 percent of global inmates. Over just the last 15 years, incarceration rates in the U.S. have almost doubled. As of November 2011, the U.S. had “four times as many prisoners as Israel, six times as many as Canada or China, eight times as many as Germany, and 13 times as many as Japan.” Since then, that difference has only grown.
The issues with our current judicial system — and, as an extension, the enforcement of said system — manifest themselves in three primary ways: disproportionate incarceration (and police brutality) against specifically African-American and Hispanic citizens, excessive prison sentences for minor drug infractions, and a failure to identify or support mentally unstable criminals who need professional care.
Racial bias and prejudice have been present in the United States government since its conception. Its permeation into our legal system, however, came in the 1850s with an influx of Chinese immigrants. These workers, ushered into the country to build railroads, brought many foreign customs with them — chief among them, smoking opium. The sudden increase of cheap labor quickly generated a wave of hostility against the Chinese, an outrage that only grew as opium use spread to white communities. In 1875, San Francisco adopted an ordinance prohibiting the smoking of opium with the intention of targeting specifically Chinese users. As a result, many arrests were made and the percentage of Chinese immigrants incarcerated in the American prison system grew exponentially.
Over a century later, we’re still seeing a remarkably similar pattern in our drug laws. Statistics show that those serving sentences concerning marijuana use or possession are mainly young, African-American males. The evidence that this is intentional is in drug classification; different prison sentences and lengths are assigned to the different classes of drugs. Marijuana is currently on the same level as such drugs as crack cocaine, despite obvious differences in health effects and consequences. As a result, our legal system gains the ability to incarcerate users for longer periods of time under the pretense of health and safety. As far as user demographic goes, there’s also clearly racial bias. As shown in studies done by the New York Times, the crime rates (concerning drugs) for the white population and African-American population are extremely close — but white Americans have a much easier time getting out of prison sentences (incarceration rates by race). Currently, one out of every nine African-American children has at least one parent in jail or who has served extended time.
The United States’ Hispanic population is also detrimentally impacted by our current prison system. Detention centers for Hispanic immigrants are highly populated, especially in Southern states, and the majority of these people have done nothing but have a darker shade of skin. Certain states, such as Arizona and Alabama, have even more specific laws allowing law enforcement officers to stop any citizen — immigrant or not — for questioning on the basis of skin color.
Apart from the racial prejudices prevalent in American drug classifications and law enforcement, there is also a serious problem present in the way we treat those who need serious psychiatric or therapeutic help. If convicted of a crime, those suffering from mental health issues are often placed into prisons where they receive no mental guidance and are often treated inhumanely. Although some states have begun attempts to reform mental health support in prisons, success levels are low and do not extend to U.S. federal prisons. In 2004, a lawsuit was filed in Ohio alleging a “culture of violence permeated the state’s detention system for juvenile inmates.” This resulted in a court-ordered health-monitoring system, which ultimately cut the Department of Youth Service facility population in half. But while this all sounds good; the program was just ended by a federal judge, and the change does not reflect the quality of resources and services provided for those still in prison. The number of mentally ill citizens in the American prison system who need professional treatment but fail to receive it remains in the hundreds of thousands.
The only way to address this issue is to make serious changes at a broad level. The U.S. federal government must inspect laws for vestigial racial bias (as well as police forces nationally), reclassify certain drug use and remove laws that require sentencing for minor infractions, and update support systems for those suffering from mental health issues in prison. The only alternative is to uphold an outdated and ill-begot justice system that unfairly targets certain groups of people and treats those suffering inhumanely.
Originally published 8/2/17.