Alexander – New Jim Crow

After slavery ended many social and economic factors kept former slaves as second class citizens. Eventually the creation of the Jim Crow laws formalized their position as second class citizens. In the 40s through the 60s these laws were deemed unconstitutional, so these laws disappeared. We have seen tremendous improvements in racial equality since that time, but there are ways in which black people continue to be treated as second class citizens. In the 70s and 80s, as globalization sent good paying industrial jobs oversees, tough on crime laws were also being introduced. In a color blind world these laws made no reference to race. Alexander makes an uncomfortable link between the fact that research shows that most Americans think of a black man when asked to describe their mental image of a criminal, and the fact that criminals are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. Consciously or unconsciously, the Jim Crow laws have been replaced by color blind laws that have created a new class of people who live their entire lives in and out of prison. The prison population has reached unprecedented levels, beginning when the War on Drugs was declared.

All that being said, even if no prison time is spent, the War on Drugs is creating a social class excluded from the rest of society by placing civil punishments on people convicted of drug crimes. Many times people are not warned of the civil punishments when they are offered the ability to avoid prison time by pleading guilty.

The civil punishments (discussed in this reading) include losing access to public housing, opening oneself to legal discrimination when applying for jobs or housing, consequently the threat of breaking parole due to being unable to pay excessive debts, hold a job, or avoid offending again. Lastly, people are losing their voice in the political arena by losing their right to vote. This is alarming and unprecedented in a Western democracy.

Minor, non-violent drug offenses have life-long consequences. Under Clinton “tough on crime” laws required public housing, which is government subsidized housing for the poor, to prohibit anyone charged with a felony from being on the premises within 5 years of the charge. A resident can even be kicked out if a their is connected with illegal activity off-site, or if a visitor brings drugs onto the premises.

People convicted of crimes experience poverty. A studies revealed that 25% of the homeless had been convicted within the last year. Another study showed that most people in jail average $12,000 legal income a year.

To make matters worse, once one has a felony on their record he or she is obligated to check the box on job applications, making it unlikely that they will even be considered for most jobs. This is a human rights issue, since employment (especially in men) is often closely tied to depression, self-worth, and crime rates. The poverty experienced by most people convicted with felonies, makes things even worse. Many people charged with drug crimes live in urban areas, but most of the jobs, after de-industrialization, are customer service oriented, and located in the suburbs. If one does not have a car, public transportation is often too expensive and insufficient for one to find, get, and keep a job, let alone the fact that race and poverty often are enough to disqualify one as a candidate for the suburban jobs in the first place.

Another factor working against those charged with drug crimes is the large debt load sometimes incurred from things like court costs, probation costs, public attorney fees, child support, job placement services, drug treatment, drug testing, etc… A failure to pay one’s debts or to find and retain a job can be enough to send one back to prison.

In addition to all of this, ex-convicts regularly lose their right to vote on local, state, and national issues that effect them, sometimes for a limited time, sometimes for a lifetime. This impacts millions of people at a time, and impacts the results of local and national elections. In Europe this is unheard of. At most, in post-communist countries, hundreds lose their right to vote. In America, even when people get their right to vote back, court fees or other charges, large enough to be unaffordable to some, prevent some from voting, resulting in a “poll tax.” For others, fear of bringing unnecessary attention on themselves prevents them from registering to vote.

This only captures part of a chapter of a much larger book. There are many interweaving institutional blocks that make the War on Drugs a bad idea. But even if one ignores the War on Drugs, this reading gives one reason to reconsider the foundation of our currently existing justice system, and ask a couple questions: Are we trying to prevent crime? Are we trying to reform the criminal? Are trying to execute justice equally and fairly? If the answer is yes, are we succeeding?


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