MCC Photo/Joshua Russell

Study guides for The New Jim Crow are available for small groups in churches that are interested in learning about mass incarceration and the U.S. criminal justice system.

The United States incarcerates an estimated 2.4 million people, more than any other country in the world. Mass incarceration exists primarily due to harsh laws passed by both the federal and state governments over the past three decades.

These laws, particularly the ones targeting drug offenders, have resulted in an unprecedented growth in the U.S. prison population and disproportionately affect African-Americans and Latinos.

Many people think about the importance of voting when election season is around the corner. However, far too few of us think to engage with our government outside of Election Day. Voting is important, but there is much more to advocacy than voting.

One of the most effective ways to bring about change is to call your elected representatives, write letters to them or, better yet, visit their office in person. If we want to have a criminal justice system that is truly just, it will require immense changes at the state and federal level over time.

Currently there is a bipartisan bill before Congress that has a chance of passing and taking the first step toward ending mass incarceration.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, mostly for drug offenses, and allow some people in federal prison the chance to partake in early-release programs through work. The bill would also end solitary confinement and life without parole for juveniles.

Politicians need to hear from their constituents about why this is an important issue if this bill and others like it are to become law. Learn more at washingtonmemo.org/portfolio/criminal­justicereform/.

If you and others in your congregation would like to learn more about mass incarceration, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. is providing study resources. MCC U.S. offers free Christian study guides to accompany Michelle Alexander’s seminal work on race and mass incarceration in the U.S. today, The New Jim Crow. Small groups are invited to participate in webinars and a six-week study to fully understand mass incarceration. For more information, visit mcc.org/learn/more/new-jim-crow-project.

It is particularly incumbent upon those of us who have power and privilege to raise our voices to our government officials and in our society to advocate for a criminal justice system that actually lives up to the “justice” part.

The numbers here — 2.4 million people in prison, a one-in- three chance of being imprisoned for African-American men, 1.7 million children with a parent in prison — are deeply saddening, but they should also be a wake-up call to us.

As Christians, we are called to seek justice in our world and to work to end systems of discrimination wherever we can. Ending mass incarceration and its many tortuous ripple effects will require devoted and sustained action from Anabaptists and many others throughout the United States.

Joshua Russell is legislative assistant and communications coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on December 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review.