Convict leasing re-enslaved thousands of African Americans by using selectively enforced criminal codes to convict and then lease black people to businesses for dangerous slave labor. (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.)

Race and the Criminal Justice System

After slavery was abolished in 1865, Southern states, where more than 90 percent of black Americans lived, embraced criminal justice as a means of racial control. Discriminatory “Black Codes” led to the imprisonment of unprecedented numbers of black men, women, and children, who were returned to slavery-like conditions through forced labor and convict leasing systems that lasted well into the 20th century.

Criminal laws also were used against Civil Rights protestors, who were denounced as “law breakers” and faced arrest, incarceration, and police brutality. These courageous campaigns earned many victories, but policies to combat racial inequality, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have not targeted criminal justice, where outcomes are still impacted by the same racial bias and inequality that pervade American society. Mass incarceration today stands as a legacy of past abuses and continues to limit opportunities in our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate; 2.3 million Americans are in prison today. Fueled by the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing policies, mass incarceration has a clear racial impact: 70 percent of American prisoners are non-white. The average American has a 1 in 20 chance of being imprisoned at some point in his life, but that rate is much higher for Latino men (1 in 6) and African American men (more than 1 in 3) than for white men (1 in 23). Strikingly, 1 in 9 black men under age 25 lives under some form of restrained liberty: in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.