The Pew Center shocked public opinion in early 2008 with its finding that more than 1 percent of American adults are behind bars, and data released recently show that one in 31 adults is in some phase of penal supervision—prison, parole, or probation. Historians of mass incarceration in the United States have long argued for an assessment of the U.S. criminal justice system in terms of human rights violations. Yet only recently has this suggestion picked up traction, as punitiveness and government funding for the corrections system have reached all-time highs.
The United States is one of the world's leading jailers, at a rate of 750 per 100,000 people. In Europe, the next closest rate of incarceration is Russia, with 628 per 100,000. Among incarcerated Americans, people of color are disproportionately represented: More than 60 percent are ethnic minorities. The increase in disproportionate incarceration over the last thirty years is primarily a result of the "War on Drugs," which impacts minority communities heavily despite consistent reports of similar drug usage among races.
Even with the increased size and punitiveness of the criminal justice system, crime and recidivism persist, suggesting that the system is deeply flawed—unfair and ineffective.
In 2003, 84 percent of all executions in the world took place in Vietnam, Iran, China, and the United States—not the usual human rights peer group of the United States. According to author Marie Gottschalk, some U.S. states still employ public shaming punishments such as public works in bright uniforms, chain gangs, and prison rodeos. Currently the United States imprisons black men in state and federal prisons at about five times the rate that black men were incarcerated in South Africa in the early 1990s, near the end of apartheid.
But there is light at the end of the cell block. The political popularity of "tough on crime" rhetoric has subsided for the time being, and mass incarceration is increasingly recognized as a social problem and a serious threat to the legitimacy of American democracy. Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) and Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) recently introduced the Justice Integrity Act of 2009 to restore confidence in the justice system and eliminate the system's racial biases. The bill proposes that each U.S. Attorney create an advisory board to collect and analyze data on racial disparities in investigations and prosecutions in her district. These committees then will make recommendations to ensure that laws are applied fairly.
There is some concern that the bill fails to provide a mechanism to ensure that local U.S. Attorneys pick committee members able to provide unvarnished opinions and testimony. If a bill like this is to be successful, advisory board appointments may need to come from higher in the Justice Department.
Also receiving attention is Senator Jim Webb's (R-Virginia) new bill that would create a commission to review the efficacy of current incarceration policies. Webb's bill was authored with the help and advice of Justice Kennedy (a Ronald Reagan Supreme Court nominee) and is currently supported by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Some social justice activists contend that it won't address the structural inequalities that cause people in underprivileged neighborhoods to engage in criminal activity in the first place. Sociologist William Julius Wilson has made the case that lack of viable employment opportunities correlates positively with higher rates of incarceration. And others have shown that black males who don't attend college or finish high school have higher rates of incarceration.
Solving the mass incarceration problem depends greatly on investing industrial and educational resources in urban minority communities to repair the fractured relationship with law enforcement. An important test case for American human rights protection is at work in the field of prison reform.