Despite recent declines, the U.S. incarceration rate is a global outlier, far outpacing other countries worldwide. It is part of a criminal justice system that is predominantly hostile to Black Americans. In this special issue of Science, “Criminal Injustice,” a Perspective, a Policy Forum, an Editorial and four Reviews evaluate the injurious legacy of nearly 50 years of mass incarceration in the United States. The experts explore mass incarceration’s deep-rooted history, its far-reaching and disproportionate effects on Black Americans and poor communities, and why the public continues to tolerate and encourage such a harmful and punitive system. “Such research is critical to understand how we got here, and to inform and inspire change,” write Science senior editor Brad Wible and Science editor Tage Rai.*
In one Review, Joshua Page and Joe Soss illustrate how public and private groups have turned U.S. criminal justice institutions into a vast network of revenue-generating operations, which include collection of fines, fees, forfeitures, prison charges, and bail. The authors describe the current criminal justice system as a predatory institution, akin to payday lenders or high-interest credit card companies, and show how it’s been engineered to extract wealth from Black Americans living in poor communities and transfer it directly to other parties.
Another Review by Hedwig Lee and Christopher Wildeman outlines evidence that illustrates mass incarceration’s far-reaching impacts on the families and communities of the incarcerated. They show that over the last 50 years, family member incarceration has become common for American families, and that this reality is greatly racially disparate. What’s more, incarceration can have broader impacts on the individual’s family’s health, education, and behavior, as well as causing other disadvantages. The authors suggest that policy interventions that prevent the need for incarceration are one of the most effective ways to enhance family and community wellbeing.
In a third Review, Christopher Muller argues that understanding the incarceration of Black Americans today requires tracing its history back to the end of slavery in the mid 19th Century. From this historical perspective, Muller highlights a link between the exploitation of Black Americans and labor demand. According to the author, throughout history, Black Americans have been exploited as laborers and kept out of prison when labor demand is high. However, when labor demand is low, or when Black Americans are seen as a threat to White labor markets, incarceration increases.
In the final Review, Julian Rucker and Jennifer Richeson explore why the criminal justice system has become increasingly characterized by racial inequality over the last half-century. In this review, Rucker and Richeson describe the psychological underpinnings of how many White Americans have come to tolerate and endorse a system so embedded in structural racism, despite having largely liberal values. According to the authors, deep-seated cultural beliefs about the nature of racism uphold the racial hierarchy within the criminal justice system. While the authors show that acknowledging structural racism reduces support for racial inequality in the justice system, the research suggests that many Americans appear to be willfully ignorant of structural racism in American society.
In addition to the Reviews, a Policy Forum and Perspective explore other facets of the current criminal justice system, including the role of technology companies in policing, and the socioeconomic causes of social unrest and violence. An Editorial by Sean Joe, professor of social development at Washington University in St. Louis, discusses issues of racial oppression.
*Note: Tage Rai is now an assistant professor in the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego.
An outlier of injustice
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