“I think the sad fact is, there’s a long history in this country at looking at African-American as subhuman. And I think that’s reflected in the fact that, when we have problems that really are problems of employment, that are really problems of mental health, that are really problems of drugs, our answer is the police.”
⏤Ta-Nehisi Coates


Watch and read these 4 short introductory videos and articles on criminal justice in the United States.


13th: Documentary Trailer

The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.
[Video: 2:19]


How We’re Priming Some Kids for College – and Others for Prison

In the United States, two institutions guide teenagers on the journey to adulthood: college and prison. Sociologist Alice Goffman spent six years in a troubled Philadelphia neighborhood and saw first-hand how teenagers of African-American and Latino backgrounds are funneled down the path to prison — sometimes starting with relatively minor infractions. In an impassioned talk she asks, “Why are we offering only handcuffs and jail time?”
[Video: 15:57]


We Need to Talk About an Injustice

In an engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness. [Video: 23:41]


The Opioid Crisis Explained in Black and White

While recreational opioid use increased in white communities, the arrest rate for sale or possession of these drugs was one-quarter the rate of street drugs, like heroin or cocaine, even though the abuse of opioids far exceeded the abuse of heroin.
[Article: approx. 2 min to read]


Grow in your understanding of how the criminal justice system developed and the impacts felt today by reading/viewing these additional resources.


Is the System Broken?

Is Our Criminal Justice System Broken? — A group of senators, police commissioners, professors, activists, and authors were asked to comment on the state of law enforcement in America. [Video 2:33]

Mass Incarceration Visualized — In this animated interview, the sociologist Bruce Western explains the current inevitability of prison for certain demographics of young black men and how it’s become a normal life event. “We’ve chosen the response of deprivation of liberty for a historically aggrieved group, whose liberty was never fully established to begin with.” [Video: 2:33]

Caste System — Sen. Cory Booker (D–NJ) sat down with Vox’s German Lopez to discuss racial disparities in America’s criminal justice system. [Video: 3:35]

Criminal Justice Facts — There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. [Article: approx 2 min to read]

Double Standard in Drug Laws — The Crack vs. Heroin Project found that racial disparities rooted in the 1980s campaign against crack cocaine still persist today despite more compassionate rhetoric about the opioid crisis. [Article: approx 2 min to read]


Black Criminality

The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality — There is a long history of dealing with problems within the African-American community through the criminal justice system, leading to the enduring view that as a race of people they are prone to criminality. [Video 3:15]

Loitering Laws — There is a fine line between loitering and just “hanging out”, which leads to selective enforcement of laws. Throughout history these laws set the stage for mass imprisonment of Black people well into the 20th century. [Video: 3:48]

Contracts Show 1800’s Prisoner Leasing System — Contracts from the 1800’s were uncovered in Texas that open a window into a dark period of state history concerning the convict leasing system in place at the turn of the century. [Video: 3:12]

How Racist Policing Took Over American Cities — Historian Khalil Muhammad demonstrates how the problem of racial profiling dates back a century. [Article: approx 5 min to read]


Media Bias and Criminality

Media Bias in Mug Shots — One news organization. Two crime stories. Two groups of suspects from different races. And two very different types of images. [Article: approx 2 min to read]

Why Accurate Coverage of Crime Matters — What people see and hear in the media has a tremendous effect on their lives from the schoolhouse to the courthouse. [Video: 1:31]
White Mass Shooters Treated More Sympathetically — A new study finds that white mass shooters are more likely than their black counterparts to be portrayed as “sympathetic characters”: A troubled soul, propelled by forces outside their control. [Article: approx 2 min to read]
Portrayals of Sports Riots vs Racial Justice Riots — Portrayals of sports riots, current protests sharply differ. [Article: approx 2 min to read]

Racial Bias in Policing and Incarceration

Walking While Black — Jacksonville’s enforcement of pedestrian violations raises concerns about another example of racial profiling. [Video 7:58]

Sentencing Disparities — An analysis found black men’s sentences are 19.1 percent longer than white men’s, even after controlling for criminal history and other factors. [Article: approx 1 min to read]
Disparities in Justice System — Black Americans face a higher chance of imprisonment, longer sentences for similar crimes, and have a greater chance of dying from an encounter with a police officer compared with white Americans, according to Pew Research Center and U.S. government studies. *Click on the graphic in the article to proceed through the slides. [Article: approx 1 min to read]

Racism and Policing in Ten Charts — Ten charts break down the divide in criminal justice among the black and white American experience. [Video: 1:47]

Racial Disparities in Two Illinois Towns — In 1993, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft reported on the racial disparity between the neighboring cities of Belleville and East St. Louis, Illinois. [Video: 13:23]


Who Profits from the Prison Industry?

How Private Companies are Profiting from Mass Incarceration — Mass incarceration isn’t only unjust—it’s big business. Bail bonds, prison phone companies, prison commissaries with inflated prices, and health care companies – just to name a few – are some of the ways locking lots of people up is making lots of money for lots of businesses. [Article: approx 2 min to read]

How the Cash Bail System Endangers the Health of Black Americans — The cash bail system inordinately impacts people of color, fueling a pervasive problem of structural racism in our criminal justice system. The pretrial population is disproportionately Black and Hispanic and has more than doubled over the past 15 years. [Article: approx 2 min to read]
Digital Jail Cost: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt — Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail, but private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they might end up behind bars. [Article: approx 10 min to read]
The Hidden Cost of Incarceration — Prison costs taxpayers $80 billion a year. It costs some families everything they have. [Article: approx 5 min to read]


The Power of Prosecutors

A Prosecutor’s Vision for a Better Justice System — When a kid commits a crime, the US justice system has a choice: prosecute to the full extent of the law, or take a step back and ask if saddling young people with criminal records is the right thing to do every time. In this searching talk, Adam Foss, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston, makes his case for a reformed justice system that replaces wrath with opportunity, changing people’s lives for the better instead of ruining them. [Video 15:57]

Plea Bargains — Author Emily Bazelon explains how prosecutors’ use of plea bargains drive mass incarceration. Bazelon notes that more than 90% of court cases end in a plea bargain rather than a trial, which gives prosecutors even more power. [Article: approx. 5 min to read with 36 min audio]
30 Years on Death Row — In an incredible miscarriage of justice, a prosecutor admits his cowardice and indifference led to the wrongful murder conviction of a man sentenced to death. [Article: approx. 6 min to read]
Prosecutors Who Break the Rules — Jim Williams was so zealous in his pursuit of the death penalty that he even posed for a picture with the mini-electric chair on his desk, on which he had taped the faces of the men that he had wrongfully sent to death row…Williams could have been stopped. He could have been fired. He could have been brought to justice for what he did. But he wasn’t[Article: approx 2 min to read]

Impact of Pre-trial Incarceration and Plea Deals

Plea Deals — A plea deal is an arrangement to resolve a case without going to trial. This is an option most often taken by those who cannot afford bail and want to go home instead of wait days, months, even years locked up in jail. An estimated 177,624 innocent Americans pleaded guilty in 2013 alone. [Video: 6:20]

The Truth about Bail — Money shouldn’t determine someone’s freedom from incarceration. Big business must not be the gatekeeper that decides who is released from jail before trial. Profits must be removed from playing any role in deciding whether a person is free or in jail. [Video: 2:04]
Time: Kalief Browder Story — This documentary tracks the reality of how a young man died because of a backpack, exposing the the inhumane practice of pre-trial detention and the impact this can have on the lives caught up in this system of locking away individuals before they have been convicted of a crime. Available on Netflix, the program gives viewers an inside look at the case. [Article: approx. 3 min to read]
What if We Ended Bail? — On any given night, more than 450,000 people in the United States are locked up in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay bail. The sums in question are often around $500: easy for some to pay, impossible for others. This has real human consequences — people lose jobs, homes and lives, and it drives racial disparities in the legal system. Robin Steinberg has a bold idea to change this. In this powerful talk, she outlines the plan for The Bail Project — an unprecedented national revolving bail fund to fight mass incarceration. [Video: 14:24]


Institutional Issues in Policing/Police Culture

The Fatal Mismatch at the Heart of American Policing — We train police to be warriors and then send them out to be social workers. Roge Karma spoke with a dozen current and former police officers, police reformers, legal scholars, and criminologists to better understand this fatal mismatch at the heart of American policing, and what it would take to fix it. [Article: approx. 15 min to read]

Police Culture — Discussion on how to change police culture, led by Arthur Rizer, a former police officer and 21-year veteran of the US Army who heads the criminal justice program at the center-right R Street Institute. [Video: 7:18]
Why Police Look Like Soldiers — Across the country, Americans protesting racial injustice and police brutality – the overwhelming majority of them peacefully – have been met by police forces that look more like an army. Officers have shown up to protests with riot gear, armored trucks, and military rifles. This is what America’s police now look like, and it’s the result of a decades-long buildup of military equipment among the country’s police departments. [Video: 8:05]
2017 Police Violence Report — Compiling information from media reports, obituaries, public records, and databases like Fatal Encounters and the Washington Post, this report represents the most comprehensive accounting of deadly police violence in 2017. [Gallery: Approx 10 min to read]
Qualified Immunity and Police Unions — This video discusses the laws and unions in place to protect police officers in the United States. [Video: 10:52]
Cities Pay Millions in Police Misconduct — Understanding “the hidden costs of police misconduct” for cities nationwide. [Article: Approx 2 min to read]

Personal Experiences

Driving While Black — Robert Wilkins, a judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, says his personal experiences with racism and as a public defender inspired him to get involved in the effort to build the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. [Video: 1:23]

Dr. Gee’s Experience — Dr Gee describes being pulled over by police for fitting “the profile,” and another time questioned by police in his own church parking lot while the white pastor in same parking lot was not. [View video segment from 2:39 to 3:45]
A Black pastor who called 911 after alleged attack was arrested. The Sheriff apologized. —  Pastor Leon McCray said he “was handcuffed in front of my assaulters,” and “they waved at me as I go down the road… [Article: approx. 1 min to read]
I was a police chief stopped by my own officer. After Floyd, we need change at all levels. — “At 14, the more I screamed, the more the police beat me. That day, I promised myself I would become a Detroit police officer and change the force.”[Article: Approx. 5 min to read]

Say Her Name — “The failure to highlight and demand accountability for the countless Black women killed by police over the past two decades, including Eleanor Bumpurs, Tyisha Miller, LaTanya Haggerty, Margaret Mitchell, Kayla Moore, and Tarika Wilson, to name just a few among scores, leaves Black women unnamed and thus under-protected in the face of their continued vulnerability to racialized police violence”. *Individual stories start on page 8 [Article: 48 pages]


Perspectives on Police Reform

Reimagining Police Training — In 2015 to 2019 more than 5,500 people were killed by US law enforcement. Officers play a critical role within our communities, but many of these incidents can be linked to a series of training failures from inadequate minimum training hours to militarized “Warrior-Cop” style training that many training academies continue to promote. This site provides training statistics and outlines ways to bridge the gap between communities and law enforcement. [Article: Approx 3 min to read]

Using Less Force — A Florida sheriff adopted Scottish police training. Now his deputies use force less often. [Video: 3:37 Article: Approx 5 min to read]
Program Alternatives to Police Involvement — Sweeping police reforms are growing in popularity among Americans, according to a recent survey by Reuters and research firm Ipsos. But what will that look like? [Video: 1:39]
What does defunding mean and does it have merit? — “Defund the police” means reallocating a portion of funding from police departments to other government agencies funded by the local municipality. [Article: approx 2 min to read]
What “Defund the Police” Really Means — The disparities between policing budgets and those of other city agencies are massive. And while defunding the police might sound radical, it’s a policy activists have been talking about for decades. [Video: 10:46]



When They See Us — Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. [Documentary trailer 2:58]

13th — Combining archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars, director Ava DuVernay’s examination of the U.S. prison system looks at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America. [Video: 1:40:02]

16 Shots — Examines the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke and the cover-up that ensued. [Documentary trailer: 2:19]





The New Jim Crow — The New Jim Crow 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. [Book 352 pages]
[Article: 10 years after The New Jim Crow]

Slavery by Another Name — A Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the “Age of Neoslavery,” the American period following the Emancipation Proclamation in which convicts, mostly black men, were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments. [Book 468 pages]
[Video: The Bricks We Stand On]

Just Mercy — Just Mercy is a powerful true story about the potential of mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice.  One of the most brilliant attorneys of our time, Bryan Stevenson gives us an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice. [Book 368 pages]

Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform — A groundbreaking reassessment of the American prison system, challenging the widely accepted explanations for our exploding incarceration rates.
In Locked In, John Pfaff argues that the factors most commonly cited to explain mass incarceration — the failed War on Drugs, draconian sentencing laws, an increasing reliance on private prisons — tell us much less than we think. Instead, Pfaff urges us to look at other factors, especially a major shift in prosecutor behavior that occurred in the mid-1990s, when prosecutors began bringing felony charges against arrestees about twice as often as they had before. [Book 320 pages]

Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System — Former public defender Alec Karakatsanis is interested in what we choose to punish. For example, it is a crime in most of America for poor people to wager in the streets over dice; dice-wagerers can be seized, searched, have their assets forfeited, and be locked in cages. It’s perfectly fine, by contrast, for wealthier people to wager over international currencies, mortgages, or the global supply of wheat. He is also troubled by how the legal system works when trying to punish people. The bail system, for example, was meant to ensure that people return for court dates, but it has morphed into a way to lock up poor people who have not been convicted of anything. [Book 208 pages]

Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration — The American criminal justice system is supposed to be a contest between two equal adversaries, the prosecution and the defense, with judges ensuring a fair fight. That image of the law does not match the reality in the courtroom, however. [Book 448 pages]


Be a part of the call to action against criminal system injustices. The following are just a few of many organizations dedicated to justice reform:

Inmates to Entrepreneurs

Our mission is to assist people with criminal backgrounds in starting their own businesses by providing practical entrepreneurship education.

Policing Equity

Center for Policing Equity works directly with police to measure behaviors and revise policies, resulting in fewer people killed and fewer people in jail. 

Prosecutor Impact

Prosecutor Impact works to improve outcomes for millions of people impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system through use of training, technology, and better data. 

Worth Rises

Partnering with directly impacted people, we work to expose the commercialization of the criminal legal system and advocate to protect and return the economic resources extracted from affected communities. 

The North Carolina Community Bail Fund of Durham fight to end cash bail and provides assistance for those that cannot afford it.

US State and Federal Prison Population, 1925-2018

There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. The results are overcrowding in prisons and fiscal burdens on states, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety. Source:

Arrest Rates for Marijuana Possession by Race (2001-2010)

Marijuana arrests make up nearly half of all drug arrests. Whites and Blacks use marijuana at similar rates, but Blacks are almost four times as likely to be arrested for it. .. In D.C. blacks are 8 times more likely than whites to be arrested.  Researchers found racial disparities in marijuana arrests to be consistent across counties with large and small communities of color. Source:

Number of People in Prisons and Jails for Drug Offenses, 1980 and 2018

A series of law enforcement and sentencing policy changes of the “tough on crime” era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration. Since the official beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017. Today, there are more people behind bars for a drug offense than the number of people who were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980. The number of people sentenced to prison for property and violent crimes has also increased even during periods when crime rates have declined. Source:

Lifetime Likelihood of Imprisonment of U.S. Residents Born in 2001

Sentencing policies, implicit racial bias, and socioeconomic inequity contribute to racial disparities at every level of the criminal justice system. Today, people of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.  Source:

Following the Money of Mass Incarceration

Prisons and jails are just one piece of the criminal justice system and the amount of media and policy attention that the various players get is not necessarily proportional to their influence. The system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year.

2017 Police Violence Report

Police recruits spend 7x as many hours training to shoot than they do training to de-escalate situations. Source: 2017 Police Violence Report

Lifetime Risk of Being Killed by Police, per 100,000

Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death. We find that African American men and women, American Indian/Alaska Native men and women, and Latino men face higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. Source: