During the past five years, we witnessed a surge of populist nationalism. Trump supporters in MAGA hats chanting “U-S-A” and waving little American flags became a common spectacle, as a wave of American exceptionalism swept across the political landscape.
American exceptionalism is the theory that America is intrinsically different from, and better than, every other nation. It purports loudly and proudly: “U-S-A is number one!”
Sadly, America is number one in some of the most unfortunate ways. The U.S. has the highest national debt in the world, about $28 trillion. The U.S. healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, (but ranked #29 in access and quality of care). The U.S. has the most COVID-related deaths, almost twice as many as #2 Brazil. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration, and the largest prison population, in the world.
According to a report by Statista Research Department (12/1/2020), “As of June 2020, the United States had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population...it was also home to the largest total number of prisoners in 2020.
“Roughly 2.12 million people were incarcerated in the United States in 2020. Other nations with population sizes comparable to the United States have far fewer prisoners.
“A significant portion of U.S. prisoners in federal correctional facilities were of black or African-American origin. As of 2016, there were almost 420,000 black, non-Hispanic prisoners. They made up 38% of all incarcerated persons in the U.S, but accounted for only 12% of the total U.S. population.”
According to its website, newjimcrow.com: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2010) is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. The New Jim Crow tells a truth our nation has been reluctant to face.
“As the United States celebrates its ‘triumph over race’ with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans....
“Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.
“The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.”
The 2016 documentary film “13th” by director Ava DuVernay (available on Netflix) won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary. According to Wikipedia: “The film explores the ‘intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States;’ it is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery throughout the United States and ended involuntary servitude except as a punishment for conviction of a crime.
“DuVernay contends that slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War through criminalizing behavior and enabling police to arrest poor freedmen and force them to work for the state under convict leasing; suppression of African Americans by disenfranchisement, lynchings, and Jim Crow; politicians declaring a war on drugs that weighs more heavily on minority communities and, by the late 20th century, mass incarceration affecting communities of color, especially American descendants of slavery....”
According to its website: “The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by producing groundbreaking research to promote reforms in sentencing policy, address unjust racial disparities and practices, and to advocate for alternatives to incarceration.”
In “Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions,” (9/5/2018) Dennis Schrantz, Stephen DeBor, and Marc Mauer report: “From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million — a nearly 400% increase — while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%. The catalyst of this prison expansion was policy changes that prioritized ‘getting tough’ on crime.
“The national prison population began a gradual descent after 2009, lessening by nearly 113,000 (6%) from 2009 through 2016. Several factors contributed to this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates leading to fewer felony convictions; scaling back ‘war on drugs’ policies; increased interest in evidence-based approaches to sentencing and reentry; and growing concerns about the fiscal cost of corrections and its impact on other state priorities. The state of California alone was responsible for 36% of the overall population decline, a function of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring its overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional and subsequent legislative responses to reduce the use of state incarceration.
“Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations between 14%-25% over the past decade. This report describes how these five states can serve as decarceration roadmaps for other states.”
The report details key strategies and practices that reduced prison populations: They include measures to get justice reforms underway and maintain momentum, as well as strategies to decrease prison admissions and increase prison releases.
According to worldpopulationreview.com, Kentucky ranks #8 in the US with a prison rate of 527 per 100,000. (Louisiana is #1 with 719 per 100k.)
A report published (December 2019) by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice “found that Kentucky’s incarceration rates are the worst in its region, topping Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina....
“In addition to its dismal ranking compared to its neighbors, Kentucky ranked as the sixth worst state in the nation for incarceration when jail admissions rates, pretrial incarceration rates, and prison population rates were taken into account. Ashley Spalding, a senior policy analyst with the progressive nonprofit Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the report’s findings were no surprise.
“ ‘Every legislative session there are numerous laws passed that actually increase criminal penalties,’ Spalding said. ‘If more Kentuckians understood all these critical data points, then we might have more momentum as a state to move forward with reforms.’ ”
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. He supports the cause of social justice.