The case of the Jena 6 has forced us to ask once again if our justice system is color blind in America. Thousands gathered in that small town on September 20 because they are convinced that African-Americans are unfairly treated in the criminal justice system.
To be honest, it's hard to discern right now exactly what happened in Jena. But don't miss the point here: It is not hard to discern the incredibly disproportionate rate of African-Americans behind bars in America.
The thousands who converged on Jena were most outraged at the prosecutor's decision to charge six African-American kids with attempted murder in connection with a beating of a white student. In their opinion, the fact that the victim left the hospital after two hours proved that the charges were excessive.
Those suspicions were reinforced by reports that the prosecutor had previously told other African-American students that he "could end [their] lives with the stroke of a pen."
For many African-Americans, this is not an idle threat—it is reality. Although only 13 percent of the population, African-Americans make up nearly half of our prison population. The incarceration rate for Blacks is nearly six times that of Whites. As social scientist Glenn Loury points out, "a black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college."
And this disparity is not limited to, or even greatest in, the South: The disparities in Iowa and New Jersey, for example, are nearly three times greater than in Louisiana.
What drives much of this disparity is the War on Drugs: In 1975, Blacks were twice as likely as Whites to be arrested for drug offenses—by 1989, four times as likely. Yet there is no evidence that Blacks are more likely than Whites to use illegal drugs—in fact, the opposite is true.
These differences and other factors are having a devastating effect in the African-American community in ways that many outside that community do not begin to comprehend. It is devastating an entire generation of families. If the present trends continue, for every Black male born today, one out of three will be behind bars in their lifetime.
As criminologist Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues put it, "the declining economic fortunes of former inmates [creates] . . . strains on families of prisoners that weaken the family's ability to supervise children . . . " As Loury put it, these children are then "likely to join a new generation of untouchables" and perpetuate the tragic cycle.
This impact and the disparities that cause it are issues that should concern every Christian. Not simply because it is unjust that one group of people should be punished in such a disproportionate manner—that's bad enough—but it should also concern us because it undermines confidence in the rule of law. It makes it easier for people to suspect the worst in places like Jena.
The Christian author Philip Yancey recently said it is easy to quote Amos—let justice roll down like a mighty river. It is much harder to build an irrigation system. Nevertheless, the hard work of justice in America is something that every Christian, Black and White, should tackle together.
From BreakPoint®, September 26, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship