Book Review: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander

The CAPTA Legislation team is in the process of reading and discussing one book a month on the topic of the African American experience in the U.S. We decided to do this to educate ourselves about this pertinent and important issue. Our first two books were How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Our third book is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

The book asserts that the War on Drugs and resulting mass incarceration of African Americans is The New Jim Crow.

Author Michelle Alexander contends that there is no truth to the notion that the war on drugs was launched in response to the crack cocaine epidemic. The war on drugs was announced in 1982, before cocaine use became an issue. At the time, less than 2% of the public viewed drugs as an important issue. The Reagan administration hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as a strategy to build public and legislative support for the war on drugs. Eventually there was a surge of public concern, but it did not correspond to a dramatic shift in illegal drug activity but instead was the product of a carefully orchestrated political campaign.

In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. Our incarceration rate is 6 to 10 times greater than other industrialized nations. There are more people in the U.S. in jail today for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. The vast majority of those arrested are African Americans charged with relatively minor crimes. Arrests for marijuana account for 80%. People convicted of drug offenses now constitute the single largest category of people in prison.

Why? What happened?

According to the author, few legal rules constrain police in the war on drugs.

The Supreme Court has eviscerated the 4th Amendment (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures). The Court has upheld the constitutionality of unwarranted search and seizures for suspected drug offenses. In addition, laws were passed that gave law enforcement agencies the ability to keep cash and assets seized during a drug arrest. Huge federal grants were given to law enforcement agencies willing to make drug law enforcement a top priority. Millions of dollars in federal aid was offered to state and local law enforcement  agencies to wage the war.  So long as the number of drug arrests increased, federal dollars continued to flow.

And who was targeted for this profitable war? The Black population.

It is estimated that 3 out of 4 young Black men can expect to serve time in prison for a drug offense. Despite the fact that studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkable similar rates, in some states Black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than white men.

What has been the actual effect of the war on drugs?

Although it is common to think of poverty and joblessness as leading to a life of crime, the research cited in this book suggests that the war on drugs is a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime in the African American community.

Being in prison is not the only problem. Today a person released from prison has scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a freed slave. There is no public assistance, the job market is bleak for convicted felons, and they are barred from serving on a jury. They are shunned by all. Shame and stigma follow jail time. Severe isolation, distrust and alienation are created by incarceration.

Prison sentences and the resulting felon label pose a much greater threat to urban families than actual crime itself. As a crime reduction strategy, mass incarceration is an abysmal failure. It is largely ineffective and extraordinarily expensive. Prison creates criminals; it doesn’t help anyone or change them or give them a chance to redeem and recover.

The point of this book is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy through mass incarceration.

By reading and discussing the books on our list, the members of our Legislation Team are learning and understanding many of the factors that are impacting families of color and look for ways that we can advocate for change in the best interest of all children and families.