The civil rights movement in the 1950s/60s is rightly championed as a crowning achievement in American democracy, but recent trends highlight an alarming reality. Millions of people of color have been arrested or imprisoned due to increasingly militaristic crime and drug laws, thereby relegating them to permanent second-class status. After being trapped in the legal system through jail or lifetime criminal records, these millions of minorities in the U.S. are denied the basic rights they were supposed to have won in the civil rights movement. As a result, they are denied the access to the very foundation of legal citzen rights in our democracy -- voting, freedom of employment discrimination, as well as access to housing, education, and public benefits.
In America today, people are realizing that there is an alarming debate that many thought was previously settled: Whether it is socially permissible to use race, religion, and ethnicity as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social derision. However, America’s legal system already allows discrimination against convicted criminals in almost every way that it was once legal to discriminate against minorities before the civil rights movement. Once labeled a felon, even for minor crimes, the old forms of pre-1970s discrimination once again become legal. Combined with increasingly militarized police forces nationwide, today’s criminal justice system has morphed into a system of control based on race, religion, and ethnicity -- despite formally adhering to many of the same post-civil rights movement legal, political, and social principles.
A few key facts tell the story: There are more African-Americans imprisoned or on probation or parole today than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. Black and brown citizens constitute approximately 60% of the 6.8 million correctional population in the United States. African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites. Among people who receive mandatory minimum sentences, approximately 70% were black or brown. Among black males born in 2001, one in three will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes. One in six Brown males will have the same fate. By contrast, only 1 out of every 17 white males is expected to go to prison. Every year, America spends approximately $80 billion to keep people incarcerated.
Given the current trajectory, time is of the essence. It is imperative to bring strong and creative legal interventions to critical civil rights issues such as police misconduct/abuse, as well as racial, religious, ethnic and gender inequality. A continuation of the status quo will allow our eroding criminal justice system to solidify into a caste system with reprehensible legal, policy, and moral foundations. In order to level the playing field and make tangible progress toward the equality guaranteed by our constitutional rights, the underserved must be given access to a higher degree of creative resources to be used in the legal system.