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End mass incarceration; the time is now

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When The Ohio State University Professor of Law Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Era of Colorblindness, one wonders if she could have imagined that a mere three years later her book would have started a movement.  The book has been read in law schools, churches, city halls, prisons, and book clubs.  Across the country discussions rage on from newspapers to blogs about the pernicious effects of mass incarceration on persons of color, and increasingly, with the release of a new Brennan Center for Justice report on April 9, 2013, on class minorities. 

The problem is complicated.  Alexander argues that a menagerie of decreased educational opportunities, colorblindness, irrational drug laws, and harsh sentencing guidelines have exacted a considerable toll on people of color.  In fact, one in nine black children have a parent in jail and one in 28 Latina/o children do as well.  This stands in stark contrast to one in 57 white children with a parent incarcerated.  The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has added to Alexander's work by showing the ways in which Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court case decided 50 years ago this year that guaranteed effective counsel to indigent defendants, has not been followed, allowing more poor people to end up in prison as a result of ineffective representation.  The results have been prisons filled with persons of color and poor people, many of whom are convicted of petty crimes and non-violent drug offenses. 

The stakes are real.  A felony conviction can lead to disenfranchisement, inability to apply for various social services and educational opportunities, trouble finding meaningful work, and a lifelong stigma that haunts ex-offenders throughout their lives.  Years lost in prison can be prime years for earnings, socialization, and education.  Prison does not end when the ex-offender walks out of the gates. 

Recently Dr. Boyce Watkins, economist and activist, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons presented at letter to President Obama signed by a who's who of celebrities and decision-makers.  The letter called on the President to reform the criminal-justice system by ending the War on Drugs and bringing about the end of mass incarceration.  To do this, the authors call on the President to apply the Fair Sentencing Act to all inmates sentenced under the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity.  This disparity saw persons in possession of crack, a drug more often used by people of color, to receive roughly the same sentence as those persons posing 100 times as much cocaine, a drug typically associated with whites.   To this end, the authors ask President Obama to support the Justice Safety-Valve Act, which would allow judges to disregard mandatory sentencing standards when the judge found such an action to be appropriate.  We must support legislation that reforms our draconian criminal justice system. 

It is time we take a stand.  Prisons are over-crowded and the amount of money we spend in tax revenue on one prisoner is more than three times what we spend on each student in K-12 in most school districts.  Families are being destroyed at an alarming rate.  Rehabilitation has fallen by the wayside and education funding has taken a back seat to prison funding.   These issues matter because they shape the make-up of our communities, schools, workplaces, and gathering places.  They influence the ways government spends money, on what and for what. 

In order to reclaim our criminal justice system and better build a society that empowers people to have productive lives, we must strenuously oppose mass incarceration and heed the warnings of Michelle Alexander.  Colorblindness is no longer a misplaced shield to prevent discussions of race, it is shielded wielded to disempower people of color under the cloak of political correctness and equality rhetoric.  

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Nick J. Sciullo is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University studying rhetoric. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, Drexel Law Review, Willamette Law Review, Whittier Law Review, (more...)
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