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Mass incarceration comes at a moral cost to every American.
By Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr.
July 10, 2001

We must hold on to the spirit of America, the ideals upon which this nation was built. What is that spirit? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses who yearn to breathe free. You will not be limited because of race, sex, religion, blood line, SAT scores, or previous conditions of servitude. Here, we will provide you an even playing field and equal opportunity. And to the extent that we have evened the playing field, we have indeed experienced some amazing results.

America, known the world over as the land of the free, was founded on the principle of liberty and justice for all. Our freedoms are to be envied in many respects. We have a free press and are protected by the First Amendment, which allows us to openly criticize our government. We are able to move about the country and the world at will. We have certain inalienable rights that arguably exceed those of any other modernized country. Yet, at the same time, some 2 million of our citizens are denied their freedom. They are caught up in the tangle of webs known collectively as the prison industrial-complex. We incarcerate more of our citizens than any other nation.

At some point we must ask ourselves: What is the moral price we pay as a nation for locking up our youth rather than lifting them up? Until something is done about this staggering practice we can no longer claim to be "the land of the free."

Although our criminal justice system is predicated on a promise of equality, it often fails to deliver. In fact, now more than ever it appears structured to affirmatively exploit race and class inequality. If left unchecked, the American dream will no longer be within every person's reach.

What is the American dream? It is a "one big tent" dream, where all of us fit inside and no one is left in the margins. Under this tent there are five basic promises: equal protection under the law, equal opportunity, equal access, fair share, and a concern for the least of us. Our national character must be measured by our commitment to these principles. We must leave no American behind.

Yet, through the prison-industrial complex and the "War on Drugs," access to justice for many is denied. A large proportion of the growth in US incarceration is not the result of increasing crime rates, which have been falling since 1992, but instead the "War on Drugs," whose arsenal includes policies such as mandatory-minimum sentencing and "three strikes" laws.

Sixty-five percent of all prisoners are high school dropouts, 70 percent are functionally illiterate, and 63 percent recidivate. We are often tempted to think of China as an oppressive country, but we incarcerate 500,000 more people in this country -- despite the fact that we have less than one-fourth the population of China. We lock up our poor, our uneducated, our unruly, our unstable and our addicted, where other countries provide treatment, mental hospitals and care.

The financial costs of maintaining such a system are staggering. Operating prisons this year will cost about $46 billion. States spending on prisons has grown far faster than that on universities.

We are increasingly becoming a nation of first-class jails and second-class schools. The United States is spending an average of $7,000 per year to educate a youth, and over $35,000 to lock up a youth.

These costs come at the expense of minorities especially, and young African American men in particular. African Americans represent 15 percent of regular drug users, compared to 67 percent for whites and 13 percent for Hispanics. Yet African Americans make up 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of drug convictions, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession.

Similar disparities are found throughout the court system, from arrest on through death penalty sentencing and the plea bargaining process at the federal level. And racial disparities in the criminal justice system do not stop at adult incarceration, but increasingly impact African-American youths as well. Although overall juvenile violent crime declined by 30 percent between 1994 and 1998, juvenile incarceration has continued to rise, particularly among African American youth. Most devastatingly, all 50 states now have laws that allow juveniles to be tried as adults. The movement toward youth involvement in adult courts is similar to "get tough" schemes in the education system. And, as is the case for school discipline policies, the rise in juvenile incarceration has disproportionately impacted minority youth. Consequently, although minority youth are one-third of the youth population nationwide, they represent two-thirds of all youth confined in local detention and state correctional systems.

As a result of all this, minority, particularly African American, communities are losing tremendous human capital as their members are warehoused in prisons. The loss of young able-bodied members of the community is as consequential as losses suffered on the continent of Africa as a result of the slave trade. High rates of incarceration among minorities further erode communities that are already depressed, when members must support increasing numbers of economically, socially, and politically impaired men, women, and children.

For far too many African American youth, our schools fall short of their mission to help, and in fact sometimes act as a slippery slope toward incarceration. Limited resources in urban public schools have conspired to limit students' preparation to meet the challenges of the job market in the new millennium.

Another devastating impact of rising incarceration rates among African Americans is disenfranchisement from the voting process. Dozens of states bar current and former convicts from voting. As a result, 3.9 million US citizens are disenfranchised, including 1.4 million who have completed their prison and jail terms. While African Americans represent approximately 13 percent of the US population, they represent 36 percent of the total number of US citizens who have lost their right to vote. The gains of the civil-rights movement are thus being rolled back by the march of the prison-industrial complex.

Challenging these trends requires concerted action from all elements of our society. If we are to advance as a nation, we must ensure that all people have adequate opportunities to become self-sufficient and productive members of our society. We will either flourish or perish together. The choice is ours to make.

Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is the founder and president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a multi-racial, multi-issue, international membership organization working to move the nation and the world toward social, racial, and economic justice.

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How We Got to Two Million
Incubating Disease
Bad Investment
Breeding Violence
Left Behind


Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.: "We lock up our poor, our uneducated ... our unstable and our addicted, where other countries provide treatment ... and care."
Photo by AP/Wide World Photos


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