Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

This obsession with criminalization is driven by structural racism. (Photo: Shutterstock)

This obsession with criminalization is driven by structural racism. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Land of the Unfree

This July 4, let’s lay claim to the freedom and equality we’ve celebrated for centuries, but seldom practiced.

Robert P. Alvarez

 by OtherWords

When I was a child, I learned to believe that Americans valued freedom and equality more than any other place on the planet. I learned that, in our criminal justice system, we were innocent until proven guilty.

It’s hard to still believe that now.

Call me a cynic, but as Independence Day approaches, I can’t help but think about how unfree America truly is, particularly for people of color.

Police are choking us to death on camera like George Floyd, and shooting us to death in our sleep like Breonna Taylor. And when we’re not being killed by police, we’re locked in cages guarded by correctional officers.

One out of five incarcerated people in the world is locked up here in the land of the free.

That’s more than 2.3 million people—greater than the population of 16 U.S. states. And the $190 billion we spend each year on mass incarceration is higher than the GDP of 22 states.

This obsession with criminalization is driven by structural racism.

Around 60 percent of America’s incarcerated people are Black or Latinx, despite those two groups making up just 30 percent of the country’s population. Black and Latinx folks consistently receive longer, harsher penalties for the same crimes white folks commit.

So much for equality. But “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t hold up so well, either.

Roughly two-thirds of the 740,000 people in local jails right now are locked up in pretrial detention. That means they haven’t been convicted of the crime they were arrested for. And again, a disproportionate number of them are Black and Latinx.

Millions of people have had it with being criminalized because they’re poor or have melanin in their skin. And millions of white people, including many in so-called Trump country, are now standing up to say that has to end, too.

Being held pretrial wasn’t always so common. But over the last 15 years, 99 percent of the total growth in jails has come in the detention of people who haven’t been tried, but can’t afford bail.

Karen Dolan, director of the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of the report The Poor Get Prison, wrote, “If you are poor in America, you are criminalized at every turn.”

Even when Black and Latinx folks are busy not committing crimes—just walking the streets of our cities—we still manage to be on the receiving end of a disproportionate share of police brutality and killings.

Getting tossed in the slammer, having police stop and frisk you, or being shot and killed because you’re poor or officers are racist doesn’t sound like we’re living in the “land of the free.”

But the good news is we’re in the middle of a cognitive shift.

Millions of people have had it with being criminalized because they’re poor or have melanin in their skin. And millions of white people, including many in so-called Trump country, are now standing up to say that has to end, too.

Many are calling to demilitarize or defund the police as a step toward eventually abolishing them. Others want to remove police officers from schools, where they funnel kids into the system at an early age. And the movement to end cash bail, which makes pretrial detention a condition of poverty, not justice, is also picking up steam.

This year, let’s celebrate Independence Day by reorienting our institutions away from mass incarceration and radically re-imagining our criminal justice system. Maybe then we can lay claim to the freedom and equality we’ve celebrated for centuries, but seldom practiced.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Robert P. Alvarez

Robert P. Alvarez  is communications assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

'I Don't F—ing Care If They Have Weapons': Trump Wanted Security to Let Armed Supporters March on Capitol

"They're not here to hurt me," Trump said on the day of the January 6 insurrection, testified a former aide to ex-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Jake Johnson ·


'Morally Bankrupt' G7 Slammed for 'Caving' to Fossil Fuel Lobby on Climate

"People in poverty around the world will pay the highest price for this backtrack by some of the wealthiest countries," one activist warned of the group's new statement on gas investments.

Jessica Corbett ·


'Yeah, And?': Ocasio-Cortez Embraces GOP Freakout Over Helping Women Skirt Abortion Bans

"Republicans are mad because I am sharing this information," said Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. "Too bad!"

Julia Conley ·


WATCH LIVE: Top Meadows Aide Cassidy Hutchinson Testifies at Surprise Jan. 6 Hearing

Hutchinson, who has spent more than 20 hours in deposition with the House panel, is expected to provide more damning evidence of the role that Meadows played in Trump's coup attempt.

Kenny Stancil ·


Oxfam Condemns G7 for Leaving 'Millions to Starve' as Global Hunger Surges

"Faced with the worst hunger crisis in a generation, the G7 have simply failed to take the action that is needed," said Max Lawson of Oxfam International.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo