I recently finished Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. She argues that “mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” That does not describe the criminal justice system that I work in, but it did inspire a lot of writing. Here are all of my posts about the book in one place.
Discussing the book with friends followed a familiar pattern. The discussion would begin with Alexander’s arguments and spiral into a larger discussion about race. Race is a fascinating and often taboo topic, and there are a lot of reasons to feel angry about the way America has treated African-Americans. Justifiable outrage over slavery and subsequent tragedies does not mean that Alexander is right when she describes a “new racial caste.” Sympathy can exist in the same head as critical thinking.
I first realized that this was not going to be a book about social science but rather a book making one side of an argument when I dug deeper into Alexander’s opening anecdote about Jarvious Cotton. Jarvious Cotton is a murderer. But Alexander makes him out as a victim of a system that “labeled” him a felon and took his voting rights. She completely leaves out the murder he committed, and his subsequent history. It doesn’t even merit a footnote.
Policing is not racist. Our country’s history of racism is shameful and complicated, but I don’t believe that policing, on the whole, is a racist institution. This is different than saying that there are no racist cops: there are. Racists are in every profession, but that doesn’t mean that every profession is racist.
Critics of policing and mass incarceration make a basic statistical mistake. Men represent less than half the population of the country but over 90% of those incarcerated. But no one says the system is sexist. That is because men commit more crime. Comparing population numbers to incarceration rates gives a false picture. Crime rates should be compared to incarceration rates.
Drug crimes are real crimes. Ending drug enforcement will hurt black victims the most. First, heroin arrived. Then came the crack epidemic. Now, the opioid epidemic. If we stop enforcing drug laws, these problems will get worse.
The vast majority of crimes committed in the United States are misdemeanors. The punishment for these crimes is usually set by an offer sheet, which is colorblind.
How should a prosecutor think about race? Should she think about it at all? Alexander thinks about race and prosecutors, maybe too much, but what about those of us with actual responsibility for communities and people’s lives?
It annoys me that she continually refers to the system “labeling” people as felons rather than using a more accurate description: people commit felonies. I understand “labeling theory” is a school of criminology.