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America’s Criminal Justice System and the Problem of Mass Incarceration

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

By Hana Shono

Used by 'The Berkeley Group' in 

As someone who is not American but has lived there for the past 2 years, I feel very ignorant. I was unaware until recently about the issues that plague the country’s criminal justice system and the role it plays in criminalising and incarcerating African Americans.

At present, roughly 2.2 million people have been imprisoned in America. That makes up roughly 25% of the world’s prison population. For a country whose population makes up 5% of the entire world’s population, that is an incredibly large percentage. Of those who are imprisoned, roughly 40% are African American. Think about the number of children who grow up without one or both of their parents.

Following the ‘abolition of slavery’, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement, it seemed that African Americans had rights. They were free. However, there existed ways in which they could lose those rights. The 13th Amendment states ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction’. In short, slavery was abolished with the exception of those who had committed a crime. The entire prison population in America therefore, 40% of which are African American, are essentially slaves.

Presidents and institutions used their power and influence to change public thinking. They took advantage of rising crime rates to emphasise the need for ‘law and order’. By painting African Americans as criminals, they were able to foster fear. In the eyes of many, it was impossible for a black person to own a nice car, to enter a store without stealing something, to not be involved in the drug industry. It is this public mentality that has contributed to police brutality and racism in America today. Of course, racism stems from issues that go much further back. However, that is a different discussion. For a basic introduction to systemic racism, I recommend watching this video:

As fear escalated and mentalities shifted, more and more African Americans were imprisoned. Those who were imprisoned for small criminal offences were provided with two options: post bail or plead guilty. Most could not afford to pay the high bail amount (for more information as to why, please refer to the systemic racism video). They were therefore faced with the choice to either find a way to pay the bail amount or plead guilty and go home with penalties. (For more information on bail please refer to episode 1 of “Justice in America”). As a result, many in America plead guilty.

While this may seem like nothing at first, a criminal record means less prospects for a job. It means you may be unemployed for a long period of time, which means that you won’t be able to provide for your family or yourself. Your life will remain difficult and you will have to start everything all over again.

On the other hand, if you were to post bail, you might be awaiting trial for as long as months to years. In that time, you won’t be with your family, you will lose your job, you might even lose custody of your children. The list goes on. It is no wonder that pleading guilty, for those who had committed small crimes, was more attractive.

In order to bring home the reality of the situation I have just described, I have provided a few links to real people who have described their experiences with police brutality, criminal convictions and racism in general. Please take the time to fully read through them and understand the reality of the issue that people are facing every day. Children are growing up without their parents, parents cannot be there for their children, all because of the colour of their skin.

I have come nowhere close to fully explaining exactly how the criminal justice system has been used to further strip away African Americans of their rights. I have yet to fully educate myself on this topic. However, what I have learned over the past few days has already awoken me to the realisation that America urgently needs REFORM. They need to CHANGE.

It is no longer enough to sit back and watch what is happening. It is time to be actively anti-racist. I have provided some links for you to donate, educate yourselves, and protest. If you do choose to protest, please be mindful of your safety, wear a mask and maintain social distancing where possible! Not everyone can protest, so take the time to read books, watch documentaries, LEARN. It is only with this knowledge that healthy discussions can be formed!

Black lives matter, they have always mattered, and it is time that everyone comes together to bring about the change the world needs to make it real.

The main sources I have used for this piece are:

  • 13th – A documentary available on Netflix. A great starting point.

  • 'Justice in America' –  A podcast with 30 episodes each highlighting different aspects of the American Criminal Justice System



  • Angela Davis: An Autobiography


The Criminal Justice System and Mass Incarceration



  • ‘The Systems that protect the police’ – ‘The Daily’ podcast by The New York Times



  • ‘Usual Cruelty’ by Alec Karakatsanis


  • 'How America's Justice System is rigged against the poor'

Police Brutality



  • (Part 1)

  • (Part 2)


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