Racial tensions stemming from structural and systemic inequalities have led to widening disparities acutely displayed in the criminal justice system.

The disproportionate and negative impact of mass incarceration can be felt in the compounding strains leading to overcrowded prisons and a lost generation of young men. Moreover, upon release after serving sentences affiliated with non-violent drug offenses, formerly incarcerated persons continue to feel the burden of a crime, regardless of the time already served. Federal prison release currently underway will affect some 6,100 inmates across the country. As release initiatives progress, a shadow of ostracism remains in the hiring process for formerly incarcerated persons.

Structural poverty and economic instability have generated insufficient resources for minority communities that suffer from high crime rates and limited commercial opportunity. Thus, the prisoners being released, although a move in the right direction for criminal justice reform, will likely face difficulties entering the job market. Shockingly, individuals looking to work in legal enterprises such as the adult-use marijuana industry in certain states continue to face barriers, as individuals charged with felony drug crimes are ineligible to work in the legal cannabis market. The exclusion from the new marijuana industry mimics other forms of employment subjugation that can be felt across formerly incarcerated populations, but disproportionately so for people of color.

Change to drug policy laws does not return everyone back to their families, but it begins to change the mass incarceration paradigm that for 40 years has continued to increasingly target African-American communities on the false narrative that the policies implemented would bring safety and better opportunity. Current sentencing procedure and mass incarceration efforts, in an attempt to be “tough on crime,” have led to devastating results across this country. The inequitable distribution of punishment for drug use extends beyond the brick and mortar cells as the sanctions placed on formerly incarcerated persons continue to be felt in access to higher education as well. In turn, stratified access to higher education limits job opportunities and ultimately social mobility.

In refocusing our efforts towards ending systemic and structural poverty specifically within underserved communities, mass incarceration policies connected to antiquated drug laws must be reformed. Moreover, the work is incomplete solely by releasing individuals convicted of drug crimes. Lifting the perpetual roadblock for those seeking new futures and opportunities would greatly help those who are shadowed by sentences already served for a crime that may no longer receive penalty. Ending the war on drugs and ending mass incarceration for drug offenses is not only right socially, fiscally, and morally, but it serves as the foundation for achieving equity and justice in our racially biased criminal justice system.

Miranda Gottlieb is a senior in political science and Hispanic studies. She can be reached at

This column is part of a public policy-centered series written by members of the UTK Roosevelt Institute.

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