Mass incarceration is responsible for wreaking havoc on the Black community. The decline of Black America is linked to mass incarceration, going back to the early 1970s. During the early 1970s, an increase in arrests and imprisonment in the Black community can be attributed to infamous “Law and Order” scare tactics. Conservative Republicans coined this phrase to induce fear within White Americans, promising to be tough on crime at a time when crime was actually on a decline. This tactic was used to appeal to Republican voters during elections, promising stricter laws and more arrests.
In 1971, then President Richard Nixon identified drug use as “public enemy number one.” Once in office in the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan famously expanded the “War on Drugs.” The choices made by his administration changed the entire face of the criminal justice system. The “War on Drugs” gave police officers across the country incentives to violate the rights of citizens in pursuit of reducing the amount of narcotics-peddling on the streets. Prisons began raking in prisoners at rates never seen before in United States history. The prison population more than doubled. The majority of Black men currently serving time are there on non-violent drug offenses.
The ramifications of mass incarceration on the Black community have proven to be unyielding. African Americans are close to 13% of America’s population but half of the entire prison system. The so-called “War on Drugs” had negligible impact on actual drug peddling but succeeded in defaming the Black community. For many years, the widespread negative impact of mass incarceration went unaddressed. In recent years, however, the issue has gained traction. Many right-wing politicians continue to call this issue a conspiracy or even a myth and characterize it as another example of African Americans complaining about oppression.
The “war on drugs” created a reprehensible culture that continues to inform the current nature of the criminal justice system. The hyperpolicing of Black communities has resulted in routine civil rights violations without addressing the root or flow of the drug trade. Some police officers feel empowered to casually hunt Black men and Black women down like cattle, completely disregarding their rights to life and liberty.
Once victims of hyperpolicing are caught in this cycle, many are left without access to proper or adequate council, regardless of the crime committed. Guilty or not guilty, they are faced with an ultimatum: accept a plea deal or spend decades in prison. Upon release, the formerly incarcerated are saddled with felonies and a deeper sense of despondency, only to have society add salt to their injuries. Recidivism rates tell a very keen and obvious story. Ultimately, this “War on Drugs” impacted the Black community by increasing disenfranchisement, increasing poverty, dismantling the Black family, and increasing police brutality. The common denominator is mass incarceration.
This is a serious social justice issue that needs to be addressed. Our drug enforcement policies need to be investigated and changed. Drug users need treatment, not prison. Marginalized Black communities need improved education and economic opportunity. It is up to our generation to understand these issues and to be a part of the change.
Janiyah Davis-Hines is a Criminal Justice Major at Florida Memorial University and Volunteer with the FMU Social Justice Institute