On Monday morning, the ACLU of Maine was fortunate to attend the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast, hosted by the NAACP Portland Branch.  It was a inspiring event, honoring the legacy of Dr. King. The keynote speaker was former Secretary of Defense, U.S Representative and U.S Senator, William Cohen of Maine.  In his address, Cohen reflected on racial inequality in the United States today.  Citing severe disparities in poverty, access to health care and incarceration rates, Cohen asserted that we have yet to achieve the vision of Dr. King.

“13% of the U.S population is black, yet black people are 50% of our prison population. Something is wrong with this picture.”  - Former Defense Secretary William Cohen                                            

Racial disparities are ubiquitous in our criminal justice system. In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is a new racial caste system that has essentially replaced the old Jim Crow laws.  She traces the roots of the extreme growth of our criminal justice system to the civil rights movement, where politicians used racial tensions to justify the passage of “tough on crime” measures. Forty years later, we now have the largest penal system in the world. 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated,1 million of which are African Americans. 1 in every 3 black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point during their lifetime. Even here in Maine,the least racially diverse state in the nation, significant disparities exist. In enforcement of marijuana laws, blacks are 2.1 times more likely to be arrested than whites, despite similar use rates (they are 5 times more likely in York, Washington, Somerset and Franklin counties).  While only representing 1% of the Maine population, African Americans are 7% of our prison population.

Equally as harmful, is our system of collateral consequences. 65 million Americans – roughly 28% of the adult population  - are currently grappling with the collateral consequences of their conviction, from loss of public benefits and voting rights to forced disclosure of their criminal record on employment applications. Collateral consequences set up a system of de facto discrimination, which given the vast disparities in our criminal justice system, further perpetuate existing inequalities. In fact, in 1987 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declared that blanket bans on hiring people with a criminal record reinforced racial disparities, and thus was a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

In his famous “I have a dream” speech, Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” calling on Americans to “make real the promise of democracy.”  As we celebrate the immense gains of the civil rights movement, it is imperative that we also take this opportunity to recommit ourselves to combating racism wherever it persists and advocates for laws, practices and systems that ensure the promise of racial equality and justice for all.