EJI's History of Racial Injustice Highlight: Race and the Criminal Justice System

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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.

Pictured above: Convict leasing re-enslaved thousands of African Americans by using selectively enforced criminal codes to convict and then lease black people to businesses for dangerous slave labor. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.)

This Highlight on Race and the Criminal Justice System is the tenth in a year-long series of excerpts from EJI's A History of Racial Injustice - 2014 Calendar. It's part of our newest initiative addressing race and poverty in America.

The calendar is designed to be a helpful tool for learning more about racial history. Expanded content from A History of Racial Injustice is now available in our online timeline.

Americans are reflecting on significant anniversaries that relate to the end of slavery 150 years ago and the most intense and productive period of civil rights activism in our nation’s history 50 years ago. We invite you to learn more about racial history and join us in building a society where equal justice for all is fully realized.

Highlights from our 2013 calendar are available here.

Visit us each month for a new Highlight from A History of Racial Injustice.