The Jena Six, Mass Incarceration, and the Remoralization of Civil Rights

34 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2010

Date Written: April 26, 2010


Mass incarceration ultimately rests on the false assumption that African Americans need to be incarcerated in historically unprecedented numbers because of a moral breakdown in their communities. Crime is assumed to be the product of a basic moral failure in both the individual offender and in the community at large, not the product of any set of social conditions or circumstances. Recent work by sociologists, criminologists, and economists suggests that poor, urban African American communities are not communities whose norms of moral behavior have broken down but communities whose moral norms have come under unprecedented strain. Social science evidence suggests that the residents of the poorest African American urban communities believe deeply in the family and economic values of mainstream American society but are unable to realize those values because of the emergence of a relatively new and concentrated form of jobless poverty during the seventies, eighties and nineties. Mass incarceration is an unnecessary and counterproductive response to crime in a community whose norms of moral behavior remain intact but are badly strained by socioeconomic conditions. Tragically, the pervasiveness of mass incarceration as a social policy confirms its own false premise of moral breakdown among poor African American communities by stigmatizing those communities as essentially criminal.

Suggested Citation

Kennedy, Joseph Edward, The Jena Six, Mass Incarceration, and the Remoralization of Civil Rights (April 26, 2010). Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL), Vol. 44, 2009, UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1596207, Available at SSRN:

Joseph Edward Kennedy (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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