Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘michelle alexander

“Room for Debate”: Would Ending the War on Drugs Resolve Racial Imbalance in the Prison System?

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The New York Times “Room for Debate” feature this week addresses the racial imbalance in incarceration rates, providing a range of opinions on the question:

The news for young black men is not good: they are disproportionately singled out for discipline in school, they are more likely to be stopped and frisked by New York City police officers, and according to Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.

Would pulling back on draconian drug laws or legalizing marijuana be enough to fix this imbalance? What else needs to be done?


Written by sara

March 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm

James Forman on the Limitations of the Jim Crow Analogy

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In the current issue of the Boston Review, Georgetown Law professor James Forman has some interesting thoughts on two of last year’s most significant books on mass incarceration — Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Here’s Forman on the limitations of Alexander’s account:

This account of the origins of mass incarceration reinforces the Jim Crow analogy by tracing a direct line from a profound social ill (mass imprisonment) to a well-known enemy (racist voters and politicians who pander to them). But the account is incomplete. Something else was going on in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s: violent crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Homicide rates doubled between 1965 and 1975, and robbery rates tripled.

The increase in crime helped to fuel demands for more punitive policies. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. Harlem residents were outraged by rising crime rates in their neighborhoods and sought increased police presence and stiffer penalties. …

Those who call attention to the harm caused by our current criminal-justice policies must also be ruthlessly honest about the harm caused by crime. This, too, is a matter of racial justice: victims of crime—especially violent crime—are disproportionately poor, young, and black or brown. It is also a strategic imperative. Tough-on-crime advocates are not going to stop talking about violent offenders and the need to protect communities from them. If reformers shy away from the topic, their chances of building a broad movement for change will suffer.

The review is well worth reading in full. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the carceral state was already on its way to expansion even before homicide rates shot up in the late 1960s. It’s worth wondering whether black leaders responded to violence in their communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s by calling for more incarceration at least in part because that was a solution that the nation, dating back to the Johnson years, had already indicated that it would support; whereas more comprehensive social programs such as those envisioned by Johnson’s War on Poverty were already falling out of favor.

Some Holiday Reading on Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs

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Here are two magazine features to keep you occupied in airports and train stations through the new year:

  • The American Prospect has published online this special report on mass incarceration, which will also appear in its January/February 2011 print issue. The report features contributions from criminal justice policy scholars Mark Kleiman and Michelle Alexander, plus reporting on a wide range of policy issues (indigent defense, prisoner reentry, education funding, etc.) and state and local experiments with alternatives to incarceration.

Written by sara

December 13, 2010 at 11:24 am

As Pundits Parse Election Results, Let’s Not Forget Who Can’t Vote

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I suspect I wouldn’t agree with John Boehner on much, but I agreed with the first few lines he said last night: “Frankly this is not a time for celebration, not when one in 10 of our fellow citizens are out of work.” I’d only add that the official unemployment numbers underestimate the true extent of what we might call enforced idleness in our culture since they don’t count the 2 million men and women in prison (and lest you think prisoners are stamping license plates, keep in mind that in many states prison work programs are a thing of the past). As Michelle Alexander observes, the rise of the prison-industrial complex coincided with the near disappearance of urban jobs:

In 1954, black and white youth had about the same rates of employment — with black youth actually having a slightly higher rate of employment. As recently as the early 1970s, about 70 percent of black men held industrial jobs in cities like Chicago. But by the early 1980s, when the drug war was kicking off, that figure had plummeted to less than 27 percent. Indeed, by 1984, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. This was not due to a major change in black values or black culture. This dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization and globalization. Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Practically overnight, jobs vanished from inner cities. Hundreds of thousands of black men were suddenly jobless and inner city communities were suffering from economic collapse. Sociologist William Julius Wilson documents this tragedy in his book, When Work Disappears.

The economic collapse of inner-city, black communities could have inspired a national outpouring of compassion and support. … Instead we declared a War on Drugs.

One of the reasons we remain in denial about the existence of this new caste system and its role in creating and perpetuating racial inequality is because prisoners are not included in unemployment and poverty statistics. Prisoners are treated as though they do not exist. The exclusion of 2 million poor people, most of whom are people of color, from poverty and unemployment data creates the impression of far greater progress in remedying racial inequality than has actually occurred to date.

During the 1990s, for example, during the “economic boom” of the Clinton years, African American men were the only group to experience a steep increase in real joblessness, a development directly traceable to their rapid inclusion in the criminal justice system. In fact, during the 1990s – the best of times for the rest of America – the true jobless rates for noncollege black men (including prisoners) was 42 percent! Standard unemployment data underestimates true black joblessness by as much as 24 percentage points, by failing to count prisoners.

Of course, destructive criminal justice policy is a vicious cycle: felon disenfranchisement laws ensure that those most harmed by mass incarceration are also barred from helping to vote out those politicians who’ve perpetuated it. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes:

Nationwide, 13% of African-American men have lost the right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average. Given current rates of incarceration, three in ten of the next generation of African-American men across the country can expect to lose the right to vote at some point in their lifetime.

Then again, now that I think about it, those most harmed by mass incarceration may not be people with criminal convictions themselves, but their children. Of course, they can’t vote either.

NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” on Disproportionate Incarceration of Black Men

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Today NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” had a panel on the disproportionate incarceration of black men, featuring Charles Blow of the New York Times, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, poet Dwayne Betts, and Ohio State professor Michelle Alexander. It’s probably nothing readers of this blog don’t know, but nonetheless worth listening to — Alexander is always good at dismantling the canard that the caste system we’ve created can be chalked up to higher crime rates among blacks — and I wanted to highlight the remarks of Dwayne Betts, on both the hazards of incarcerating youth alongside adults and the difficulties of prisoner reentry: Read the rest of this entry »

The Strange Career of Jim Crow (Yankee Edition)

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NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice has published an important new report, Jim Crow in New York, tracing the history and ongoing impact of New York’s racially-motivated felon disenfranchisement laws. The report demonstrates that “Jim Crow was not confined to the South” (p. 4) and that he is not dead. The upshot (p. 14):

The mandatory criminal disenfranchisement provision put in place in 1874 is nearly identical to the provision that remains the law in New York today, and it continues to have its intended effects. The current law in New York denies the right to vote to any citizen in prison or on parole. Nearly 80% of those who have lost their right to vote under New York’s law are African-American and Hispanic. Almost half of those disenfranchised are out of prison, living in the community.

Restoring voting rights to those who are in the community increases public safety. Many law enforcement and criminal justice officials are speaking out against disenfranchisement because they recognize that bringing people into the political process makes them stakeholders, which helps steer former offenders away from future crimes.

Criminal disenfranchisement laws also harm families and entire communities. Studies show that denying the vote to one person has a ripple effect across families, dramatically decreasing the political power of urban and minority communities.

The New York Times covers the Brennan Center report here; earlier, I blogged here about ongoing litigation over felon disenfranchisement in Washington State. For comparative context, an interesting scholarly article on Southern felon disenfranchisement laws is available for download here, entitled “‘A Chicken-Stealer Shall Lose His Vote’: Disfranchisement for Larceny in the South, 1874-1890,” by Pippa Holloway. And finally, for a broader version of the argument that collateral consequences for felony convictions add up to a new form of legal segregation, see Michelle Alexander’s new book The New Jim Crow.

Upcoming Event: The New Jim Crow

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Stanford Law School will host Ohio State professor Michelle Alexander this Wednesday, Feb. 10, to discuss her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). Here’s the publisher’s blurb on the book:

As the United States celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

Written by sara

February 7, 2010 at 12:26 pm

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