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
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
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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