Turning the Tide in Corrections to Address Racial and Economic Disparities

Last week (September 15, 2018) there was an interesting article in The Economist Magazine. It is titled, Australia’s Aboriginals: Turning the tide. https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/09/15/australias-aboriginals-try-a-novel-approach-to-fighting-crime

The article gave a brief introduction to the disproportionate incarceration rates of aboriginal people in Australia, specifically in Bourke, better known as “the outback.” It went on to discuss the novel approaches that community members are taking to address this issue in both the juvenile and adult populations. It is hard not to make a comparison of the Australian justice system’s inequalities to ours in the United States.

It is no secret that the United States has a mass incarceration problem like no other county in the world. At present, there are approximately 2.3 million people in the United States who are being held in either a state or federal prison, juvenile correction facility, or local jail.

Not only does this figure represent the highest known rate of incarceration in the world, it also represents a slight decrease in U.S. incarceration rates over the past 10 years.

When we take a closer look at these 2.3 million people currently in custody, we see that a disproportionate number of incarcerated individuals are African American and Latinx. A 2016 study published by The Sentencing Project found that in state prisons, African American individuals were incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of whites and that five states (including Wisconsin) had a disparity of more than 10:1 (Nellis, 2016).


All of this goes to say that, as a country, we have a persistent problem that produces a myriad of direct and indirect negative consequences that disproportionately affect people of color. One of these notable issues is the incredible stress that incarceration puts on families and children of the incarcerated. Many incarcerated individuals are primary caregivers and/or primary breadwinners for their families. Their removal from the home can have devastating effects on those who rely on them. There is a growing body of research that has documented the links between parental incarceration and negative outcomes for children such as poor academic performance, behavioral problems, and increased health problems (Haskins, 2015; Turney, 2014).

While there is some work being done to help mitigate these effects, we cannot ignore the larger issue of outlandish mass incarceration that is both socio-economically and racially skewed towards low-income African American families. As we see countries such as Australia work to address similar issues, we should take notice and consider the applicability within our own borders while also keeping in mind the historical context that has created this burdensome issue for so many.


Australia’s Aboriginals: Turning the tide. (2018, September 15). The Economist, 38-39.

Haskins, A.R. (2014). Unintended consequences: Effects of paternal incarceration on school readiness and later special education placement. Sociological Science, 1, 141-158. http://dx.doi.org/10.15195/v1.a11

Nellis, A. (2016). The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.

Turney. K. (2014). Stress proliferation across generations? Examining the relationship between parental incarceration and childhood health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 55, 302-319. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0022146514544173

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