Mass incarceration and discrimination in our justice system hurts our communities

Stuart Appelbaum | 8/28/2014, 12:58 p.m.
The expansion of the U.S. prison system—driven by privatization that has turned imprisonment into a profit center for corporate America—has ...
Stuart Appelbaum

The expansion of the U.S. prison system—driven by privatization that has turned imprisonment into a profit center for corporate America—has taken a toll on our neighborhoods. Our justice system disproportionately targets communities of color, sending far too many young people into prison, often for nonviolent crimes.

This summer, the country has watched the costs of mass incarceration and judicial prejudice play out on their television screens. As in Missouri, many communities distrust the authorities and harbor explosive anger and fear. We’ve seen this play out again and again in our urban communities, including in New York, where we have fought back against dehumanizing stop-and-frisk policies that brought routine harassment and intimidation and eroded citizens’ confidence in the police.

And over the past few decades, we’ve seen the results of the unfair targeting of our communities by the justice system. The prison population has quadrupled in the U.S. since 1980, bringing with it a wave of hopelessness that has jeopardized the future of a generation of urban youth. Too many young people are being locked up and later released back into society, disenfranchised and without proper rehabilitation. Young people in our communities are trapped in a cycle that too often leads right back to prison.

These are people who will not be able to contribute to the economic fabric of their communities. They won’t be able to provide for their families, and too many children will grow up without the support they need from both of their parents. After they get out, they won’t be able to vote and participate in our political process, and they’ll have a black mark on their record that will keep many from obtaining good jobs that can help repair their lives and create better futures.

We need to fight back against discrimination in our justice system by forming community coalitions that can create better relationships with law enforcement. We need to reform mandatory sentencing guidelines that disproportionately send minorities to prison for nonviolent offenses.

The expansion of the privatization of our justice system—which incentivizes the explosion of mass incarceration—must be stopped. Nationwide, we need to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. By dedicating sufficient resources to programs that keep youth occupied, we can keep young people out of prison. By prioritizing quality training, rehabilitation and parole systems, we can break the cycle of imprisonment and recidivism.

Mass incarceration is a social and economic issue. We can’t make strides against economic inequality when so many of our young people start out in the workplace with strikes against them, and we can’t build stronger communities when the system is stacked against stability and growth. Ending mass incarceration is a key factor in creating an economy with shared prosperity.