I’m continuing to read and process through Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Here are some continued thoughts – largely ideas and statistics offered by Alexander that I’m taking special notice of and lingering on.
The first reflection I posted followed Alexander’s historical narrative of race relations in the United States; in the next two chapters she moves to a discussion of the current criminal justice system in America.
War on Drugs: a declaration and collection of anti-drug policies championed by the executive branch leading to harsh mandatory sentencing, increased searches (with or without warrants), and federally-funded/incentivized militarization of police.
Mass incarceration: It is worth repeating that Alexander is not simply looking at people in prison, but those who are caught up in the criminal justice system at all levels (those who are detained, in parole, probation, etc. in addition to those in prison)
And some quotes from Chapters 2 and 3:
“Despite the fact that most drug arrests are for nonviolent minor offenses…the percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences has quadrupled” (59).
“Up to 99 percent of traffic stops made by federally funded narcotics task forces result in no citation and that 98 percent of task-force searches during traffic stops are discretionary searches in which the officer searches the car with the driver’s verbal “consent” but has no other legal authority to do so” (70).
“[Madison’s Capital Times] explained that in the 1990s, Wisconsin police departments were given nearly a hundred thousand pieces of military equipment…justified to city councils and skeptical citizens as essential to fight terrorism or deal with hostage situations, [but] were rarely deployed for those reasons but instead were sent to serve routine search warrants for drugs or make drug arrests” (77).
“Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales…Between 1988 and 1992 alone, Byrne-funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets” (78).
“Never before in our history have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe” (86)
A few thoughts:
As the situation in Ferguson has continued to unfold, the protesting voices are naming Ferguson as a microcosm of a wider, systemic issue. The voices speaking out against the protesters seem to suggest Ferguson is an isolated incident – one man, one police officer, one situation. From all the conversations I’ve had, these are the two most common “camps” people find themselves in (realizing that there are, of course, radical positions stemming from both of these).
Michelle Alexander’s picture is nothing less than a widespread, systemic issue in our law enforcement and criminal justice system. Even if you took the racial thread out of her argument, the narratives of implementation/enforcement and statistics comparing sentencing in the USA compared to global norms are still pretty shocking. Though as I mentioned in my first post on this book, Alexander’s work is intended to name mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not simply an unjust or unnecessary obsession with fighting drugs.
Her work continues to push into statistics, research, and accounts suggesting this is not simply a widespread, equal-opportunity injustice, but this amounts to the new Jim Crow. I think there’s still work to do in order to communicate across the two camps mentioned above. How do we not simply continue moving forward with the status quo if our population is so divided on whether there is, indeed, any kind of systemic issues at play in all this?
Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?