Labor Must Act to Stop Mass Incarceration

In too many corners of our nation, black and brown Americans are suffering under the weight of a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms people of color. The AFL-CIO enthusiastically supports the efforts of President Obama to make our laws fairer and more effective.

When a nonviolent offender spends a decade or more of their life behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentencing, no one benefits. When those who have paid their debt to society cannot find housing or a job, the entire economy suffers. When a generation of young Americans advance through our prison system instead of our school system, our nation is weaker for it.

Simply put, mass incarceration is ineffective, racist, and morally bankrupt. It is up to all of us -- business and labor, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative -- to do something about it.

The numbers are staggering. Black Americans make up 13 percent of our population, yet 38 percent of those incarcerated. As President Obama pointed out, we imprison more people than the top 35 European countries combined. We have an epidemic on our hands.

No one disputes that hardened criminals and other violent offenders should be locked up. But those who have made a one-time mistake -- often out of economic desperation -- deserve a path to redemption that includes access to jobs, education, housing, credit, and all the components of the American Dream. They also deserve to fully participate in our democracy, including the right to vote.

Among the reforms proposed by President Obama, the AFL-CIO strongly supports:

-Removing questions about criminal records from job applications (Ban the Box)
-Increasing job training to enhance prisoner reentry to society
-The elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing in non-violent drug cases
-A federal review of prison overcrowding and the use of solitary confinement
-Restoring voting rights for ex-felons

Quite frankly, the labor movement has not done enough to address mass incarceration. While blacks and Latinos have undoubtedly benefitted from the protection and benefits of a union contract, labor has too often shied away from using our political might to knock down systematic injustices. Communities of color don't just work to work -- they work for a better life. Reforming our criminal justice system will help more Americans achieve that better life.

As part of our commitment to this effort, the AFL-CIO has formed a Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice. The formation of this commission is a recognition that America's legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers' efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us.

In every possible way, mass incarceration is a worker issue and a labor issue. President Obama has taken an important first step down the road to sensible and fair criminal justice policies that make our communities and our country stronger. The AFL-CIO is proud to stand side by side with the President in this important and necessary endeavor.