Juneteenth and the American Criminal Justice System

For over two centuries in America, millions of African Americans were subjected to brutal conditions under the institution of slavery. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, declaring all slaves free, many remained in bondage. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and announced the end of slavery in Texas, that the last enslaved African Americans were freed.

June 19, now Juneteenth, has since evolved into a day of celebration, remembrance, and reflection on the progress made and the challenges that remain. However, the end of slavery was only the beginning of a long, arduous journey towards equality.  In reflecting on the historical significance of Juneteenth, we can also explore its connection to the current realities faced by Black and Brown communities in the criminal justice system.

The Modern Criminal Justice System and Systemic Inequities

In the contemporary United States, the criminal justice system continues to reflect deep-seated racial disparities. African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented at every stage of the criminal justice process, from policing to sentencing.

  • Policing and Arrests: Black Americans are more likely to be stopped, searched, and arrested by police. Studies have shown that they are more likely to be stopped for minor infractions or for no reason at all compared to their white counterparts. This over-policing leads to higher arrest rates and increased interaction with the criminal justice system.
  • Sentencing: Once arrested, Black and Latino individuals often face harsher sentences than white individuals for the same crimes. This disparity is exacerbated by the fact that they are more likely to be charged with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences or are classified as felonies.
  • Incarceration: African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans. This overrepresentation is due in part to the “War on Drugs” policies implemented in the 1980s, which disproportionately targeted Black and Brown communities. The effects of mass incarceration are profound, affecting not only those imprisoned but also their families and communities.

It is important to note that discrimination is not unique to the United States and disparities in criminal justice systems are known to be a pervasive and global issue. These inequalities manifest in various forms, from disproportionate arrest rates to harsher sentencing and overrepresentation in prisons.  Whether affecting indigenous populations, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals, or due to caste, the list continues with different targets around the world. While a global issue, it is worthwhile to focus on local concerns as we celebrate Juneteenth in America.

The Connection to Juneteenth

Juneteenth serves as a poignant reminder of the long fight for freedom and justice in the United States. While the day commemorates the end of slavery, it also calls attention to the enduring legacy of systemic racism. The criminal justice system, with its disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities, is a modern manifestation of the same racial inequalities that Juneteenth seeks to overcome.

The struggle for equality did not end with emancipation. It continues today in the fight against mass incarceration, police brutality, and systemic discrimination. Juneteenth is not just a celebration of past victories; it is a call to action to address the injustices that persist in our society.

Moving Forward: Embracing the True Spirit of Juneteenth

To honor Juneteenth and its significance, we must actively work towards dismantling the systems that perpetuate racial inequality. This involves:

  • Advocating for Criminal Justice Reform: Policies such as ending cash bail, decriminalizing minor offenses, and revising sentencing guidelines can reduce the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities.
  • Addressing Systemic Racism: Efforts to dismantle systemic racism must extend beyond the criminal justice system to include education, healthcare, housing, and economic opportunities.
  • Empowering Communities: Providing resources and support to communities most affected by mass incarceration can help break the cycle of poverty and criminalization.

Juneteenth is a powerful symbol of freedom and the ongoing struggle for equality. As we celebrate this historic day, let us commit to creating a society where freedom and justice are truly accessible to all. Only by confronting and addressing the inequities within our criminal justice system can we fully honor the spirit of Juneteenth and move towards a future of genuine equality and justice for all.

At the SAW Project we are committed to advancing fair and equitable treatment for everyone, and most directly those involved with criminal justice systems around the world. By understanding and acknowledging the connection between Juneteenth and the current state of America’s criminal justice system, we can better appreciate the ongoing fight for justice and equality on a global scale.