Mass Incarceration: America’s 21st Century Human Rights blunder

Yes, it’s that time again! Election season. Until November 2016 candidates will tout their ideas, dangle both their professional and personal achievements in our faces, and make promises as to how and why they’re the best candidate to lead America forward. From immigration to nailing Wall Street corruption it’s all been heard before. But, the topic that hasn’t largely filtered its way into the mainstream political is: completely ending mass incarceration.

As it stands, the United States of America is the most incarnated country on the planet. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies’ 2013 World Prison population list, the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world at 716 per 100,000 of the national population.  Indepthly By the close of 2010, America had 1,267,000 people behind bars in state prisons, 744,500 in local jails, and 216,900 in federal facilities—this is about 2.2 million locked away. This is a scary statistic, especially since the U.S. has long considered itself to be a beacon of democracy and freedom throughout the world. America’s incarceration problem hinges largely on two main problems that are as old as America itself, race and socio-economics.

Undeniably so, America has had a rough year in terms of race relations, from the explosive anger over police brutality to the rise of violent white supremacy to fierce debates over the confederate flag and its legacy, the country is still at a standstill. America still has no exact solution on what to do about its race problem. Fueling the racial issue remains the fact that there’s still gross inequality between blacks and other minorities and mainstream white America. To illustrate this research by Brandeis University indicates that over the past 25 years, the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled. These stark inequalities are not only evident domestically, but internationally as well, in 2014 the  U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) noted after examining the U.S. record that Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and to housing.

Along these lines there have been a variety of studies to show that race, poverty, and crime are inextricably linked. However, moving outside of this context there are two other important issues which are pertinent to understanding mass incarnation. Unfair sentencing laws and access to justice.  The crack down on crime politics throughout 80s and 90s led to an increase in incarceration rates. This included development of unfair sentencing laws, especially when it came to drugs.  The penalty for getting caught selling crack cocaine which was largely sold in low income black and other minority neighborhoods was significantly higher than selling powdered cocaine, which is more expensive and sold to wealthier whites. These laws persisted until 2010 when congressed passed the  Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger certain federal criminal penalties from a 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, among other provisions. In July of 2015 at the  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual convention, former President Bill Clinton apologized for his role in mass incarceration for the passage of his 1994 crime bill, which created the “three strikes” provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. The three strikes provisions also strips those convicted three times of their right to vote. Which severally disenfranchises communities that are already poor by removing political rights from a good segment of their population.  In mid-2015 President Barack Obama started commuting sentences of non-violent drug offenders, so far he’s commuted 46 sentences. President Obama also was the first sitting president to visit a prison, when he visited Oklahoma’s El Reno prison in the summer of 2015.

In addition to unfair sentencing laws, many have been subject of wrongful convictions, which still persists through unfair arrests and stops by law enforcement due to racial profiling. According the Innocence Project, a nonprofit which works to exonerate people based on DNA evidence found that the majority (63%) of those freed through DNA evidence are African American. Many have spent years in prison after being misidenfied or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Outside of unfair sentencing laws, let’s not forget access to justice.  Gaining access to legal representation in the U.S. can be a brutal expense. The public defender system is largely over worked and often not efficient to each individual case, especially in larger cities where crime rates are higher. The better the attorney, who has connections and can make deals with the state’s attorney’s the better one’s chances are of not being incarnated or receiving a lesser sentence.

In addition to this, the U.S. bailing system is also unfair to those who cannot afford to post bail and must stay behind bars until their court date.  Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2011 looked at non-felony offenders in New York City dating back to 2008. While more than three in four were released on their own recognizance, more than 19,000 had their bail set at $1,000 or less. Eighty-seven percent of that group did not post bail; these non-felony offenders spent an average of 15.7 days in jail.

Taking all this into consideration, why is mass incarceration a major blunder for human rights in the U.S.? The major blunder for human rights is that due to unfair systematic racialized policies leading to their detainment many are not be able to realize their full potential as human beings or productive members of society. In addition to this many families have been torn apart and generations have been impacted and continue to be impacted. Many sit in prisons who could be community leaders, doctors, and entrepreneurs, those who could make a stark difference in how this country is run. According to Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings should be equal before the law of the land and free from discrimination. Laws sanctioning incarceration based on race and socioeconomic factors therefore are human rights violation. And yet while this declaration is largely symbolic, it falls in line with moral and political principles outlined in our constitution.  However, the United States does have an obligation to up hold its’ responsibilities internationally, concerning racism and discrimination and in particular the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights among many others. 

Lastly, consider this, the United States spends around $80 billion a year on mass incarceration. Imagine if the U.S. took the necessary steps to end mass incarceration and all the possibilities that would follow. These 80 billion dollars could be used to finally close education disparities or to invest in low income communities, create adequate transportation across America, or to further extend healthcare access to even more of people at little or no cost. Regardless of the savings or the reallocation of funds, the bottom line is America’s political beliefs and philosophies that are celebrated every July 4th are again proving to look like a total farce.  America is not living up to what all it should be and that should be a concern to every citizen.  A question every American should ask him or herself; “is the 21st century America the free and democratic society that the war of independence was purposed for?”

Author Biography

Jared Bell holds a Master of Science Degree from the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs in Negotiation and Conflict Management, and is currently a PhD candidate in Nova Southeastern University’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution program with a focus in international peace and conflict where he is currently working on his dissertation entitled “Strategizing Justice: A critical Analysis of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Draft transitional Justice Strategy and its ability to foster Reconciliation”. Jared has also studied at Al Akhawayn University in Infrane, Morocco, the Universities of Groningen and Rijeka’s Summer School in Cres, Croatia on “Transitional Justice and the Politics of Memory”, and the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation’s Venice Academy of Human Rights. Interested in human rights advocacy, transitional Justice, and conflict resolution, He has been active in developing various human rights, peace building, and development projects based in the U.S. and abroad. He has also been a freelance journalist for the Baltimore Examiner, where he published articles on international affairs and human rights. Jared currently serves as the Executive Director of Advocates for Human Dignity, a non-profit dedicated to human rights advocacy across the globe.

Cover image ‘Do not pick up hitchhikers‘ by Karol Franks

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