The rise in prison populations during the mid-1970’s has created an indestructible carceral state in the United States. The notorious War on Drugs waged by President Nixon has had long-term implications on penal policy, seen by the overrepresentation of minorities in U.S prisons. The “get tough” movement planted the seeds of a penal-political crisis: mass incarceration. Though the legacy of law and order politics has left over 2 million people behind prison walls, the move towards criminal justice reform allows policymakers to acknowledge the consequences of the crackdown on crime during the 1970s. Although criminal justice reform is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t fully address issues faced by re-entering society.
Success in criminal justice reform does not end with merely shortening prison sentences and releasing former offenders; it requires policy that enables these citizens to rejoin their communities, regain self-agency, and participate in broader civil society. In reality, this is not the case. The many obstacles that minority ex-offenders endure create a prison beyond the prison, as they are often treated like second-class citizens. And considering that African Americans still constitute roughly 35% of prison populations, despite only making up 13% of the U.S population, you can see how race plays a hand in the “mark of a criminal record” even when they’re released from prison.
Minority ex-offenders often face discrimination in the job market as a result of their criminal record. Some employers even use purposeful discrimination against marginalized ex-offenders, using their criminal past against them. According to Devah Pager’s and Bruce Western’s “Discrimination in Low Wage Labor Markets” study, African Americans are 57% less likely to become hired if they have a criminal record. These limitations render young, African American males especially vulnerable during the post-incarceration period. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the criminal justice system has fueled a “cycle of poverty” for former offenders. Employment is a prime way that allows former offenders to reintegrate into society; yet, employer discrimination often leaves both minorities and minority ex-offenders with fewer job opportunities.
The reality is, if we are to really commit to criminal justice reform, it begins with knowing that reducing the numbers of prison populations, and leaving it at that is not enough. It does not end by simply releasing large prison populations and leaving them to figure out the next stages of their lives. When it comes to reentry, we are in fact doing the bare minimum.