For those unfamiliar with the moral crisis of the American penal system, let’s review the current state of affairs. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any country in the world, far exceeding rates in China, Iran, and Russia. Americans make up just five percent of the world population, but with 2.24 million people behind bars, boasts 25 percent of the global prison population. These numbers are compounded by the justice system’s systematic racial bias. White and black men use marijuana at roughly equal rates, but according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, black men are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for possession. In her book The New Jim Crow, Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander writes that in some cities, African-American men are imprisoned on drug charges twenty to fifty times more often than white men. And The Economist reports that today in America, a black man is 3.6 times more likely to be jailed than a black man was in Apartheid South Africa in 1993.
It’s hard to disagree with critics like Franklin who say that the system is broken. But from another perspective, the system is working exactly as designed. It’s working so well, in fact, and for so many politically connected interests (private prison corporations and law-enforcement unions among them), that the two most powerful officials in the country, two men who are ostensibly sympathetic to the problem and who are black themselves, do not have the political leverage to address the underlying issues.