Upholding Ideals of Justice

In seeking racial reconciliation, we begin to understand each other through dialogue and relationships. This blog is part of a series that explores the issues facing our world today.

Mass Incarceration: A Social Justice Issue for Our Time

Every year for the past four years, we at Willow Creek Community Church have packed Christmas gifts for people in prison, raising up tens of thousands of paper bags and praying for the people who will receive them. 

We witness individual stories of transformation, but how deeply have we thought about structural and systemic inequities when it comes to who ends up in those prisons and jails? Why does the United States have 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 22 percent of its prison population? Why do black men constitute 6 percent of the U.S. population but make up 37 percent of the prison population? Why are one in three black men sent to prison and one in six Latinos likely to be incarcerated when the rate for white men is one in 17? 

In the past few weeks, you may have heard that President Barack Obama showed clemency to more than 1,300 people. Why? Racial justice advocates attribute his use of presidential power in part to chip away at a two-word phrase that has recently been thrust into the public consciousness: mass incarceration. 

What is mass incarceration? 

Mass incarceration is the concept of imprisoning large portions of the population. It has been seen as a tool of control and oppression. The practice is viewed as particularly unfair to blacks and Latinos, who often receive longer sentences for the same or similar crimes committed by whites. A report by the United States Sentencing Commission found black men in the federal prison system receive sentences that are 20 percent longer as compared with white men for similar crimes. 

How does mass incarceration relate to history? 

Mass incarceration is woven into structural oppression against racial minorities. In his book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” lawyer and racial justice advocate Bryan Stevenson breaks our country’s systemic oppression of blacks into four eras: slavery, the enslavement of millions of people as sources of labor; convict leasing, which provided prisoners as free labor to private institutions; Jim Crow laws, which caused widespread segregation, separate and unequal facilities and the suppression of the right to vote throughout the American South; and mass incarceration, which, according to The Sentencing Project, has caused the prison and jail population in the U.S. to skyrocket by 500 percent in the last 40 years. 

What caused mass incarceration? 

Mass incarceration began in the early 1970s as the prison population began to swell. That coincided with politicians from both major parties who promised law and order, a war on drugs and getting tough on crime. In the documentary, “13th,” former Speaker of the House and Republican Newt Gingrich intimated the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine was racist. He later says, “If you’re white in America, you have no idea what it’s like to be back.” The same film also shows President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, acknowledging to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that his 1994 Crime Bill tore apart families, particularly African American families, and caused a spike in the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. 

Policies in this era included mandatory minimum sentencing that did not allow judges take into account mitigating circumstances and three strikes laws that sent some drug offenders to prison for life terms. The rise of the “prison industrial complex,” the partnership between government and private companies in building and maintaining prisons and in such parole equipment as monitoring bracelets, has also created an economic incentive to increase the prison population.

What’s being done about mass incarceration? 

Grassroots, nonprofit organizations have been fighting policies that have prompted mass incarceration. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has been working to reform mandatory minimum sentences at the state and federal levels; The Sentencing Project allows individuals to appeal to lawmakers for reform bills that would stem mass incarceration; Critical Resistance works to end the prison industrial complex; and The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference collaborates with thousands of churches to advocate against mass incarceration.

 President Obama, who was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, on December 19, 2016, granted clemency to 231 people, the most ever by a president on a single day. The majority of those granted clemency that day – 153 commutations and 78 pardons – were nonviolent drug offenders. To date, he has granted clemency to 1,324 people. In his commutation of 95 prisoners in 2015, The New York Times quoted Obama as saying it was “another step forward in upholding our ideals of justice and fairness.” 

Racial Reconciliation Resources:

The groundbreaking book on mass incarceration was written by a lawyer, Michelle Alexander, and is called “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.” Also not to be missed is Bryan Stevenson’s riveting “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” In it, Stevenson, also a lawyer, gives an astounding account of the death penalty cases he appealed but also breaks down the role mass incarceration is playing in the context of our nation’s often-appalling history with race. On Netflix, find “13th,” a poignant, gripping documentary on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. 


What kind of internal or subconscious biases have you had about people who are or were formerly incarcerated? How has learning about individual stories altered that perception? How has knowing more about the inequity of mass incarceration affected it? 

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