Racism and the Prison-Industrial Complex: Disparate Impacts of Policing, Sentencing, and Mass Incarceration

Jack Barber, Mar 1, 2023

America is romanticized as the land of opportunity, the place where dreams come true. As the old adage goes, workers just need to work hard, and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to attain economic prosperity. But this is not the United States that Americans of color reside in. Americans of color live in a nation infected by racism and fear. The United States shoves guns into the hands of agents of the state and vests them with the discretionary power to combat lawlessness in any capacity they deem necessary, regardless of whether that includes the execution of unarmed civilians. The criminal justice system – including policing, sentencing, and incarceration – facilitates unfair and racist outcomes. However, these systems are not portrayed as such in the media and the mind of the American voter, allowing injustices to continue to occur on a daily basis.


In January of 2023, Americans witnessed a tragic but ever-familiar incident occur with the unjustifiable murder of Tyre Nichols by five Black police officers. Some claim that the race of the police officers indicates a lack of racism in American policing, but it actually indicates the opposite. Policing, as an institution, is racist. This means that whoever serves the interests of this racist institution will act in a racist way, regardless of the race of the individual officers involved in a violent interaction [1]. In this instance, the officers did as they were taught, which led to the brutal killing of another unarmed black man. More than two-thirds of police killings begin with non-violent encounters such as mental health situations and traffic stops [2]. These situations do not require the level of force that police officers have been trained to respond with, which instead catalyzes undesired outcomes. Despite making up solely 13% of the population, in 2022, African-Americans made up 26% of those killed by the police [3].


The 2020 murder of George Floyd facilitated a national conversation about discrimination in policing. America seemed to be in the midst of a racial reckoning, as protestors took to the streets to make their voices heard, condemning violence against Black Americans at the hands of police. While this conversation was necessary and productive, very little tangible policy change was enacted as a result. This is proven by the continuation of the senseless murders that the criminal justice apparatus upholds, the latest victim of which was Tyre Nichols.


The criminal justice system is, at all levels, a racist legacy of slavery designed to imprison, destroy the lives of, and even kill African-Americans. Policing is the field enforcement of this racist system, but it is far from the only way that mass incarceration is realized. The next stage of the criminal justice system that perpetuates this racism is the courtroom. The 6th Amendment guarantees a fair, public trial with an impartial jury. Despite this, Black jurors are often struck from the bench at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. For example, during his thirty-year career, Mississippi District Attorney Doug Evans struck Black jurors at a rate 4.4 times that of white jurors. This often leads to Black defendants being tried in front of entirely white juries, rather than a jury of their peers, causing disproportionate sentencing outcomes. Federal prosecutors have been twice as likely to charge African-Americans with offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences and African-Americans make up nearly half of those serving life sentences [4].


Policing and sentencing are both important parts of the way that the justice system discriminates against minority communities and upholds mass incarceration, but the physical act of caging individuals carries perhaps the most devastating consequences. According to data from the Sentencing Project, Black Americans are jailed at a rate nearly five times that of white Americans [5]. This statistic is staggering as there is no biological explanation for the tendency of African-Americans to commit more crimes, meaning a combination of both systemic factors and over-enforcement is to blame for this stark difference in incarceration among racial groups. The trend of mass incarceration is also due to self-sustaining cycles of poverty that exist within many marginalized communities. Because of the higher rate of African-American children that grow up with at least one incarcerated parent, as well as other systemic factors brought on by American legacies of racism such as a lack of affordable housing, quality healthcare, and education, they themselves are much more likely to be admitted into the criminal justice system. This also makes it difficult to obtain jobs or higher education opportunities, as many firms will not hire previously incarcerated individuals.


Once in jail, private prison companies are greenlighted to extract value out of the human beings that have been incarcerated. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution is well-known for abolishing slavery in the United States. This historical perspective obscures the lesser-known truth about this amendment, as it includes an exception that states that slavery is permitted “as a punishment for crime.”  According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 800,000 incarcerated individuals are forced to serve as workers without fair wages or labor protections. These prison laborers do not receive even minimum wage, much less overtime protection, workplace safety guarantees, or the right to unionize. On average, incarcerated workers earn less than fifty cents per hour while generating more than $10 billion in goods and services, functionally equivalent to the institution of slavery that the United States claimed to abolish more than 150 years ago [6]. While this form of slavery is borne out of the pursuit of capital, its cruel impacts are exacerbated by racial discrimination. Inmates of color make up a disproportionate share of the demographics of prison populations and thus, a disproportionate share of the exploitation.


While the racist outcomes of the criminal justice system are impossible to overlook, not all Americans are convinced by this fact. Many subscribe to pro-police rhetoric promoted by wildly successful media campaigns led by police departments and their allies in the public. The term “copoganda” has been coined by some advocates to describe the way in which police departments attempt to paint themselves in a positive light, obscuring unfavorable details of officers’ interactions. A prominent example of this phenomenon occurred in the wake of the killing of 17-year-old Laquon McDonald. After the release of body camera footage depicting Chicago Police officers shooting sixteen bullets into McDonald’s back as he walked away from them, former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel increased the staff of the police department’s public relations team from six full-time employees to 25. In the years following, this number continued to balloon, peaking at a whopping 52 full-time employees whose salaries totaled millions of dollars, all of whom were fully dedicated to preventing bad press for the Chicago Police Department [7]. This figure is astounding when considering the current prevalence of police criticism in the news. If Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and other large cities did not employ so many PR specialists, how lopsided would media coverage of the police really become?


This issue has been salient in politics for decades. A prominent example occurred in the presidential election of 1988, in which the painting of Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as “soft on crime” became a signature campaign strategy that propelled former president George Bush to the White House. This advertising weaponized the anecdote of an African-American prisoner named Willie Horton who committed vile crimes, raping a white Maryland woman following his temporary release from a Massachusetts state prison [8]. This hyper-fixation from politicians that associates political success with the support of punitive criminal justice policies is racist and outdated, yet it continues today. In December, the Bruin Political Review published an article that argued that the election of “progressive prosecutors” backed by George Soros led to dramatic spikes in violent crime, and thus, a rebuke from voters. This line of argumentation borrows from the Bush campaign, using anecdotal evidence to incite unfounded fear in an effort to expand the prison-industrial complex. Rather than Willie Horton, the article cites the case of Troy McAlister, a thief who crashed his car, killing two people. While his crimes are reprehensible, casting him to rot in a cage should not be the proportional policy response.


Some believe that rather than attempting to ameliorate the damages brought onto African-Americans by slavery, policing, and mass incarceration, the criminal justice system should be made even more punitive to reduce crime. This understanding of criminalization is deeply flawed and panders to the unfounded fears of voters. The reasoning for the inhumane practices that strip American citizens of their freedom is rooted in the flawed punitive theory of deterrence. The previously mentioned article argues that the threat of the most punitive measures, in our case, the state-sanctioned murder that is the death penalty, is necessary to ensure prospective criminals are deterred from committing heinous crimes. This is not backed by evidence, as data from the FBI proves that states which issue death sentences have higher murder rates than states that do not [9]. Additionally, crime rates are still far below that of the 1990s [10], despite serious panic from prominent conservative news outlets. Much of the crime-driven panic from the mainstream media has come as a result of structural factors such as the pandemic and a record high in gun sales, rather than the short-term implementation of policies from liberal prosecutors. The Coronavirus altered economic and social structures in a very profound way, as the daily routines of many ground to a halt. With no one going to work and spending copious amounts of time in isolation or with family members, alongside an uptick in firearm purchases, the potential for negative externalities such as an increase in crime is high [11]. 


Rather than a focus on deterrence, the justice system should prioritize the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. Current punitive justice follows the logic of an eye for an eye which, as stated by famous pacifist activist Mahatma Gandhi, “makes the whole world blind.” Putting thieves and murderers in cages does not un-steal the property of or un-kill the victims of their crimes. A preferable approach is restorative justice, where stakeholders such as the victims, the offenders, and local community members join together to discuss the incident. This discussion aims to help the offender understand the consequences of their actions and take accountability for them. Additionally, it allows the victims to influence the retributive process, working to restore their autonomy in regard to a situation that may have made them feel helpless, lost, or scared. Restorative justice has been shown to decrease the recidivism (the likelihood of committing an additional crime) of offenders at a higher rate than incarceration, probation, and other traditional criminal justice approaches [12].


Despite conservative argumentation, contemporary studies come to a consensus that there is no significant correlation between progressive law enforcement policies and an increase in violent crime. Furthermore, evidence exists that these policies actually make people safer, as declining to prosecute nonviolent misdemeanors often creates a disincentive for repeat offenses [13]. When the media calls for an increase in policing, the reasoning often hinges upon the ability of the police to combat violent crime. But the share of the time that police spend on violent crime is shockingly low, hovering at about 4%, or 1/25th [14]. This means that >95% of incidents responded to are non-violent and the introduction of the police raises the potential of escalation or excessive use of force.


For too long, the United States has both intentionally and unintentionally discriminated against communities of color. Putting more guns in the hands of cops does not work. Locking up more criminals does not work. To reduce crime and create a more equitable America, the scope of the criminal justice system must diminish. Tangible policy solutions that can be implemented in the short term include the abolition of qualified immunity and mandatory minimum sentences, federal decriminalization of drugs, and the end of the use of the death penalty. The dismantling of the vast criminal justice apparatus will not happen overnight, but common-sense reform policies represent a good starting point. Americans are tired of hearing about senseless tragedies at the hands of police – it is high time that something is done about it.


[1] Kaleem, Jaweed. “What Tyre Nichols’ death at the hands of Black officers says about race in policing.” LA Times. January 27, 2023. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2023-01-27/tyre-nichols-memphis-police-race

[2] Rubin, Jennifer. “Biden must lead on police reform”. The Washington Post. February 2nd, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/02/02/biden-police-reform-tyre-nichols/

[3] Mapping Police Violence. “About the Data”. April 18, 2022. https://mappingpoliceviolence.us/aboutthedata

[4] Wiley, Ella. “How Racism in the Courtroom Produces Wrongful Convictions and Mass Incarceration”. Legal Defense Fund. July 20, 2022. https://www.naacpldf.org/judicial-process-failures/

[5] Nellis, Ashley. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons”. October 13, 2021. https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/the-color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons-the-sentencing-project/

[6] American Civil Liberties Union. “Captive Labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers”. June 15, 2022. https://www.aclu.org/news/human-rights/captive-labor-exploitation-of-incarcerated-workers

[7] Cubbage, Geoffrey. “Analysis: Chicago Outspends and Outstaffs NYC, LA on Communications and Public Relations.” Better Government Association. October 18, 2022. https://www.bettergov.org/2022/10/18/analysis-chicago-outspends-and-outstaffs-nyc-la-on-communications-and-public-relations/

[8] Baker, Peter. “Bush Made Willie Horton an Issue in 1988, and the Racial Scars are Still Fresh.” The New York Times. December 3, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/us/politics/bush-willie-horton.html

[9] Murdock, Kylie. Kessler, Jim. “The Red State Murder Problem.” Third Way. March 15, 2022. https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-red-state-murder-problem

[10] Bump, Philip. “Trump’s death-penalty advocacy hopes to make America 1990 again.” The Washington Post. March 16, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/03/16/trumps-death-penalty-advocacy-hopes-to-make-america-1990-again/

[11] Grawert, Ames. Kim, Noah. “Myths and Realities: Understanding Recent Trends in Violent Crime.” Brennan Center for Justice. July 12, 2022. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/myths-and-realities-understanding-recent-trends-violent-crime

[12] Government of Canada. “Discussion - The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis”. August 26, 2022. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/jsp-sjp/rp01_1-dr01_1/p5.html

[13] Agan, Amanda. Doleac, Jennifer. Harvey, Anna. “Prosecutorial Reform and Local Crime Rates.” Law and Economics Center at George Mason University Scalia Law School Research Paper Series No. 22-011. November 4, 2021. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3952764.

[14] Asher, Jeff. Horwitz, Ben. “How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time?” The New York Times. June 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html