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How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?

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In 1963, the March on Washington marked a turning point in the long fight for civil rights for African Americans. A century after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds of thousands converged at his memorial to celebrate a century of liberation and to protest what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” In the intervening fifty years, we have come a remarkable distance, but the shackles of systemic racism continue to bind communities of color.

We stand on the frontlines in the fight to build a society free from racial discrimination. In 2015, we honored the sacrifices of our forbearers and galvanized international attention to systemic discrimination with a “Journey for Justice” from Selma, Ala. to Washington, D.C. While national support for this effort provides hope the tide may be turning, it also belies a sad truth: Many of the grave inequalities we fought decades ago still persist, more than fifty years after the Civil Rights Act. The single greatest injustice that threatens our safety and hinders our progress? Mass incarceration. People of color bear the brunt of our criminal justice system in disproportionate and devastating numbers. This is in part because racial disparities exist at all stages of the system, which relies on corrosive practices that harm people of color. Our communities have already suffered from historic and systemic economic injustice and racially targeted criminal justice policies. These wounds have not healed and have been aggravated by the staggering number of people trapped in prisons over the past forty years. Today, an estimated 2.2 million people are locked inside jails and prisons. African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population but 37 percent of the nation’s prisoners.1 People with dreams and aspirations suffer in airtight cells of prison and poverty. But the injustice does not end there. More than half of formerly incarcerated Americans are unemployed a year after release. Communities of color are over policed, over-prosecuted, over-incarcerated and yet underemployed.

If we do not take steps now, Americans of color will forever be relegated to a penal and permanent underclass, and mass incarceration will continue to cage the economic growth of our communities. We have reached a crisis point, and we need solutions. This groundbreaking report from the Brennan Center for Justice offers a pathway to reduce our prison population and its tragic racial disparities. It documents the number of people behind bars without rationale, and reveals the unnecessary trauma this causes. It recommends real solutions that can help end over-incarceration. I urge lawmakers to give deep consideration and deeper commitment to this report’s findings and recommendations.

This nation must continue to march forward, toward a day when all people are treated based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character, uncolored and un-stigmatized by a criminal record. It is time that we end the plague of mass incarceration.

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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.


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