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Bill Moyers and Michelle Alexander on the Racist Plague of Mass Incarceration and America's Future

What it will take to build a more just society.
 
 
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There are more African Americans under correctional control today  ̶  in prison or jail, on probation or parole  ̶  than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group dedicated to changing how we think about crime and punishment, “More than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their thirties, one in every ten is in prison or jail on any given day.”

Because of the 40-year war on drugs and get tough sentencing policies, the American prison population has exploded from about 300,000 in the 1970’s to more than 2 million today. The United States has a higher rate of incarceration than any other nation and spends billions every year to keep people behind bars. The cost on democracy is immeasurable. 

This week on Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers speaks with civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander. Her book  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness had just been published last time she joined Bill in conversation, three and a half years ago. It’s a work of scholarship that lays out how the war on drugs, harsh mandatory minimum sentencing and racism have converged to create a caste system in this country very much like the one under Jim Crow segregation laws. The book became a bestseller and spurred a wide conversation about justice and inequality in America – inspiring one reviewer to call it “the bible of a social movement.”

Alexander tells Moyers, “If we are going to build a movement to end not only mass incarceration but to achieve much greater social equity for all, it's going have to be a movement that begins in our churches, in our faith communities, in our neighborhoods, in our schools. One where people really wake up and say, ‘We are going to build a kind of democracy that we deserve.’”

This week’s program also includes an excerpt from the film “Susan,” by Tessa Blake and Emma Hewitt. It tells the story of former California inmate Susan Burton, who now runs five houses offering help to women struggling to rebuild their lives.   

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Last month in Sydney, Australia, they threw an annual event called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. One of the main speakers was David Simon, the writer and producer who created “The Wire” and “Treme,” two television series that vividly portray the vast gap between rich and poor. Nothing drives that great divide home, he said, like our prison system.

DAVID SIMON: You're seeing the underclass hunted through a war on dangerous drugs allegedly that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, at this point. In terms of just the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons […] No other country on the face of the earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

BILL MOYERS: He’s right, of course. During the past 30 years, the number of inmates in federal custody has grown by 800 percent, and half of them are serving sentences for drug offenses. According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group dedicated to changing how we think about crime and punishment, “more than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities.” This book woke people up. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. She was my guest more than three years ago when the book was first published.

An outstanding work of scholarship on how our war on drugs, our harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, and racism have converged to create a caste system in this country very much like the one under Jim Crow segregation laws. None of us at the time anticipated the powerful impact her book would have.

 
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