Addressing Mass Incarceration: What Can We Do?
“The fate of millions of people–indeed the future of the black community itself–may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society… No task is more urgent for racial justice advocates today than ensuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last.”
- Dr. Michelle Alexander
1. Understand Mass Incarceration.
Invite your congregation and/or members of your community to read Dr. Alexander’s book together. Click here for resources such as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s New Jim Crow Study Guide, a video presentation by Dr. Alexander, suggestions for community partners to connect with, a sermon by Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa on the theological grounding for resisting the New Jim Crow, and more.
2. Share the Facts.
Have a conversation with a friend about what mass incarceration looks like in this country, and share these statistics on social media:
- Even though Americans of all colors use and sell drugs at similar rates, black people are 10 times more likely than white people to be sent to prison for drug offenses.
- Today, Black Americans represent 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes, even though they comprise only 13% of the U.S. population.
- Most in prison for drugs have no history of violence or of selling. According to the FBI’s annual “Uniform Crime Report,” approximately 43% of all drug arrests in 2011 were for marijuana possession only. But the War on Drugs devotes few resources to treatment and prevention.
- The United States is unparalleled in the world in concentrating its penal activities on its racial/ethnic minorities. While studies show Americans of different races use illegal drugs at similar rates, in some states black men have been admitted to prisons on drug charges at a rate 20 to 50 times that of white men.
- The United States currently imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
- While those who are in prison cannot vote, they are often counted in the population census as residents of the largely white, rural, and conservative districts where they are incarcerated.
- The rate of incarceration in the United States has soared, while its crime rates have generally not been higher than those in other western countries where the incarceration rates have remained stable.
- To return to the nation’s incarceration rates of 1970, the United States would have to release 4 out of every 5 currently held prisoners.
3. Raise Community Consciousness.
Host a screening of The House I Live In, the 2012 Sundance Award winning definitive film on the consequences of America’s failed drug war and the injustices of the current criminal justice system. Hold a discussion afterwards and invite participants to each share a story from their life experience or a story they have heard that points to the existence of a racial caste system in the United States, enforced through the criminal justice and law enforcement systems that support the War on Drugs. Allow several minutes for participants to consider their responses, and then ask them to share.
Get involved with local and national groups that are working to dismantle the system of mass incarceration. Many cities also have prisoner reentry programs where you or your congregation can get involved. Click here for a list of partners in the movement and find out who’s working on this issue in your area. Click here for the NAACP’s toolkit for faith leaders.
Join together with other faith-based communities across the country working on these issues to network, build political power, and share resources and best practices. Make sure to let us know what you are doing in the coming months to address the New Jim Crow, whether it’s reading the book in your congregation, offering a sermon, or joining with others in your community to change the status quo. Register your activities here (coming soon) and connect with others doing this work on the “UUs Resisting New Jim Crow & Mass Incarceration” Facebook group.