Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk

During the week of June 19, cities around the country mark Juneteenth — the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Dating back to 1865, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, this holiday marks the day when Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were now free. They were the last people freed from slavery in the United States.

In much of the country, however, mass incarceration has picked up where slavery left off.

Over 150 years after the first Juneteenth, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world — over 2.2 million people, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years. This increase didn’t come from rising crime, but rather from changes in law and policy dating back to President Nixon, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of people punished with prison time.

African Americans are incarcerated at many times the rate of their white counterparts, leading law professor Michelle Alexander — author of The New Jim Crow — to argue that racial discrimination has transformed mass incarceration into modern-day slavery.

Like slavery before it, the prison industrial complex is now an economy unto itself. As the number of incarcerations has soared, prison industrialists seized the opportunity to capitalize and started bidding for the right to incarcerate Americans and otherwise cash in.

The racial disparities are stark, particularly when it comes to the drug war. Despite the fact that African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whitesPrison Policy Initiative data confirms that nonviolent drug convictions are a defining characteristic of the federal prison system. Even nonviolent drug charges give people criminal records, reducing their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.

This has impacts across generations. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that by the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.

The “evidence is overwhelming that the unjustified incarceration of African American fathers (and, increasingly, mothers as well) is an important cause of the lowered performance of their children,“ the report concludes. For example, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to misbehave at or even drop out of school, develop learning disabilities, and to suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and homelessness.

Juneteenth represents a milestone for America, but it’s time to take the next step: criminal justice reform to stop the growth of mass incarceration. Some states have begun to take matters into their own hands, implementing important policies to reduce the number of people in prison. But federal action is necessary to propel long-term systemic change.

Last month the House passed the First Step Act aimed at reforming our prison and jail system. Unfortunately, House members are divided over the provisions of this bill, and key Senate members have criticized the bill for not including sentencing reform.

In the spirit of Juneteenth, we need sweeping criminal justice reforms so that we can reduce mass incarceration and improve the lives of all Americans.