The mass incarceration of poor people of color represents a new American caste system that is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. The War on Drugs and the "get tough" movement explain the explosion in incarceration in the United States and the emergence of a vast, new racial undercaste in which the overwhelming majority of the increase in imprisonment has been poor people of color, with the most astonishing rates of incarceration found among black men.
- More African American adults are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
- In many large urban areas in the United States, the majority of working-age African American men have criminal records.
- In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, giving the US the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
- Drug convictions alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal system, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population between 1985 and 2000.
- In some states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.