Skip to content

Justice Let Justice Roll Down: the Next Horizon of Civil Rights

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Image of a text panel in red with yes and no arrows pointing to different routes through the exhibit with the question "Have you ever broken the law?"
The Eastern State Penitentiary Exhibit “Prisons Today” Opens With The Statement “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working.” Today Formerly Incarcerated People Sit On Eastern State’s Board Of Directors And Are Employed As Tour Guides. Photo By Darryl Moran.

“It’s easy to imagine that a system like mass incarceration can’t be dismantled. The same was said about slavery, the same was said about Jim Crow. —Attorney and author Michelle Alexander

President Barack Obama gave considerable attention to criminal justice reform during his two terms, commuting the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders, presenting his vision for the future of the criminal justice system to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility. Under his leadership, the White House’s Data-Driven Justice initiative fostered the recognition and replication of successful state and community-based efforts.

Exhibits Donated By Ex-Prisoners On Display In The Isolation Cells Of The Woman’s Jail, With Videos Of Them Sharing Their Experiences Of Being Imprisoned. Photo Courtesy Of Constitution Hill.
Exhibits Donated By Ex-Prisoners On Display In The Isolation Cells Of The Woman’s Jail, With Videos Of Them Sharing Their Experiences Of Being Imprisoned. Photo Courtesy Of Constitution Hill.

While the election of President Donald Trump may signal a shift away from federal reform, there are signs that the momentum of local reform will continue. In the 2016 election, voters in Oklahoma reclassified minor drug possession and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and channeled the cost savings to mental health and drug treatment services. Voters in New Mexico supported changing the state constitution in order to prevent detention of defendants solely due to their inability to post bail. Voters across the country opted to legalize recreational use of marijuana or facilitate medical applications of the drug. Many communities elected reform-minded district attorneys who campaigned on platforms of less incarceration and less punitive sentences.


Criminal justice reform has been prioritized by the international community as part of efforts to help postconflict societies reestablish the rule of law. These efforts acknowledge reform must be grounded in respect for human rights and reshaping public attitudes toward law enforcement as well as specific changes to policing and incarceration.

Many Americans believe that criminal justice and mass incarceration are the civil rights issue of our times. In the United States, blacks are much more likely than whites to see racial bias in the justice system, and for good reason: the overlap of poverty, race, and incarceration is hard to overstate. Indeed, these issues are essentially facets of the same problem, since the criminal justice system as currently constituted perpetuates racial disparities in wealth, education, and opportunity. The US criminal justice system has been used for many decades as a substitute for a comprehensive system of support for people in need of medical treatment for mental health issues or drug dependence. See, for example, how a range of laws about public behavior and the use of public space effectively criminalizes homelessness.

Formerly incarcerated men and women experience high levels of unemployment, which particularly injures women and families, as feminized professions such as retail and caregiving routinely require criminal background checks. The direct and indirect costs of becoming entangled in the justice system weigh most heavily on the poor, often miring families in ongoing cycles of debt. It also damages the economy as a whole: economists estimate that such barriers to employment reduced the US GDP by $78–$87 billion in 2014.

Mass incarceration has created what has been called “felony disenfranchisement”: 6.1 million Americans are unable to vote due to state policies barring felons from voting. Twelve states carry lifetime voting bans for men and women with felony convictions. Permanently removing the right to vote from people who have first-hand experience with the injustices of current policies makes it that much harder to enact reform.

Youth incarceration is particularly problematic, as early imprisonment has lifelong effects on a young person’s education, well-being, and attainments. This practice also disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to be charged and more likely to get harsh sentences. This inequity reflects deeper attitudes in our society that emerge as early as preschool, when teachers’ unconscious bias leads to black boys being disciplined at higher rates than their white and female peers, and sets the stage for what has been dubbed the “school to prison pipeline”—a system in which zero-tolerance policies in education funnel children out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Deconstructing the US system of mass incarceration will require deconstructing the economy that has grown up around it. Many municipalities rely on fines from law enforcement as a major source of revenue, often selling these debts to private businesses that increase the debt via fees and interest. So called “profit-based policing,” which incentivizes overenforcement in mostly poor, politically disempowered neighborhoods, helped create the tensions that led to widespread protests after the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. (Court fines and fees are Ferguson’s second largest source of income.) In 2014, the private prison industry was a $4.8 billion business with profits of over $629 million, housing nearly 20 percent of federal prisoners and 7 percent of state prisoners. Involuntary servitude of prison populations is legal in the United States, and incarcerated workers are often forced to work for little or no pay through in-prison business or via “convict leasing” to external for-profit companies. The pricing and profits of companies such as AT&T, Victoria’s Secret, McDonald’s, and BP (British Petroleum) are, effectively, subsidized via incarceration.

Two people sit in front of a gilded alter piece
The Clark Art Institute’s Raise Program Engages High School Students Referred By The Juvenile Court System. Raise Students Work On A Reflective Writing Assignment In The Clark Galleries. Photo By Art Evans, Courtesy Clark Art Institute


Museums’ communities are being buffeted by the economic, cultural, and political fallout from current inequities in the justice system. Increasingly, museums are being called on to play a role in addressing these tensions through serving as venues for dialogue, as places of healing, or by acting as advocates for social justice.

Museums can help society reexamine the history and current practice of justice in the United States. They can create exhibits and programming that respond to current and local events and shape the discussion of how to move forward.

Even as museums become more conscious of the need for security in the face of domestic and international terrorism, they need to be aware of the message that security sends to portions of our communities. Adding officers and bag checks can make some people feel less secure, not more.

As the museum field commits to diversifying its own workforce, it needs to consider the effects of excluding people with criminal records. Besides disadvantaging a population that needs employment opportunities, this treatment also impedes progress toward racial diversity, given the disproportionate number of people of color with criminal convictions.


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander. The New Press, 2012. Alexander documents the effects of the US criminal justice system, arguing that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

The Sentencing Project has been working on US criminal justice issues for 30 years, promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration. Their website ( provides a number of fact sheets and Web tools, including state-level data on criminal justice.

The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. Their website ( includes videos, reports, and news briefs on racial justice, children in prison, mass incarceration, and the death penalty.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.