On Juneteenth, innocence advocate Robyn Trent Jefferson discusses mass incarceration, wrongful conviction

Today is Juneteenth, and we are sharing our discussion with innocence advocate Robyn Trent Jefferson about how wrongful convictions perpetuate the mass incarceration of Black people. Tomorrow, we will share perspectives about remediating the New Jim Crow.

Watching videos of incarcerated people from the early 20th century, you will see a familiar sight: Black men clad in striped jumpsuits and ankle chains, swinging pick axes in uniformity. But before the turn of the century, incarcerated faces looked very different. In the 1850s 99% of people incarcerated in Alabama were White but by the 1880s 85% were Black. 

There are two major contributors to the drastic change in prison demographics. Within those thirty years, slavery ended and the 13th amendment was ratified. The 13th amendment made it unconstitutional for someone to be “held as a slave”—seemingly granting freedom to all Americans. However, the added clause, “except as punishment for a crime,” offered a loophole to those seeking a way to perpetuate the system of slavery. 

The end of slavery brought the economic collapse of the South. In an attempt to rebuild the Southern economy, the loophole was immediately exploited for cheap labor, effectively reinventing the system of slavery. 

After the amendment’s ratification, Black people were arrested for extremely petty crimes, like loitering, and prison demographics quickly shifted. The need for labor led to a system of “leasing” incarcerated individuals to private railways, mines, and plantations—not only creating opportunities for cheap labor but bolstering the economic incentive to incarcerate as many people as possible. Leased individuals earned no pay and faced inhumane working conditions that were often worse than the previous treatment of slaves. By using the justice system to target the innocent, the system of mass incarceration began to form. 

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Our country makes up 5% of the global population but holds 25% of the world’s prison population. 

Robyn Trent Jefferson, a paralegal for the Innocence Project says she sees the cogs of mass incarceration at work every single day in New Jersey. She remembers that on a hot summer night in 2008 in Montclair, eight teenagers sat on a front porch in an attempt to escape the sweltering heat. The boys lived in Robyn’s neighboring town and were enjoying the cooling air when police officers intervened– the boys were arrested and taken into police custody for nothing more than sitting on a front porch at night. When another officer asked what the kids had done, one of the arresting officers reportedly said, “they weren’t doing anything but we didn’t have anything else to do.” 

“They picked the kids up and took them up town— that’s eight kids off of one street,” Robyn said. “Imagine they do that on every other street– now you’ve got hundreds of kids in jail. Why? for sitting outside. If those same tactics are used in a city like Newark, NJ where the chances are [high] that people are going to be sitting out on the street on a hot summer night— Just that in of itself, without even a crime committed could produce a wave of incarceration that the town cannot absorb but it’s happening all the time.” 

Robyn’s work with the Innocence Project has put her on the front lines of the prison reform movement, and she witnesses the abuses of the justice system all the time.

“When I think about mass incarceration, I don’t need to look at any numbers or any statistics because I am seeing it happen all around me,” Robyn said.

Black people account for 40% of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S despite making up only 13% of the population. Racial injustice is deeply ingrained in the criminal legal system. The origins of modern-day policing are traced back to the “slave patrol”– the earliest formalized police groups, who monitored and controlled the movements of slaves by establishing a system of terror and forced submission. 

“Negative stereotypes are at the heart of all of this ugliness that is perpetuated,” Robyn said. “You have people today who are reaching back for these 100-year-old stereotypes that have been perpetuated and riding on all of these big billows of ignorance for years and years and years.”

Stereotypes contribute to over-policing and wrongful convictions. Black people account for 50% of all exonerees in the U.S. and according to the National Registry of Exonerations, Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than White people. At the Montana Innocence Project, Black people make up 4% of applicants for legal services but only 0.6% of Montana’s population.

“You still have people who might be walking down the street and see a group of Black kids coming and decide to cross the street,” Robyn said. “And because of that, you are going to have people who are going to target you just because you’re Black. They are going to assume that you’re certain things just because you’re Black and if they assume that you’re up to criminal activity, that can cost you your freedom. Or your life.”