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How the Drug War Fuels a New Racial Caste System in America

Michelle Alexander explains how the drug war's treatment of men of color is equivalent to a new Jim Crow era.

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MA: The United States does have the highest rate of incarceration in the world dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes like Russia, China or Iran. This reflects a radical shift in criminal justice policy, a stunning development that virtually no one - not even the best criminologists - predicted forty years ago. Our prison population quintupled in a thirty year period of time. Not doubled or tripled - quintupled. We went from a prison and jail population of about 300,000 to now more than 2 million. Most people seem to assume that this dramatic surge in imprisonment was due to a corresponding surge in crime, particularly violent crime. But that simply isn't true. During the same period of time that incarceration rates skyrocketed, crime rates fluctuated. Crime rates went up, then went down, then went up, then went down again. Today, crime rates are at historical lows. But incarceration rates - throughout all of these fluctuations - have consistently soared. Most criminologists today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates in the United States have had relatively little to do with each other. Incarceration rates - especially black incarceration rates - have soared regardless of whether crime has been going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.

Defenders of the status quo will often try to mislead the public by saying, "Just look at our state prisons: nearly half of the inmates are violent offenders. This system is about protecting the public from violent crime." This type of statement is highly misleading. First, the statement excludes federal prisoners. Less than 8 percent of federal prisoners are violent offenders - most are convicted of drug or immigration offenses. More important, though, that kind of statement obscures the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who have been arrested in the era of mass incarceration have been arrested for non-violent offenses. What defenders of the system typically fail to acknowledge is that the reason violent offenders comprise a fairly large percentage of the state prison population is because they typically receive longer sentences than non-violent offenders. Because they stay longer, they comprise a larger share of the prison population than the millions of nonviolent offenders who are cycling in and out, trapped in a cycle of perpetual marginality that has been deliberately constructed through our legal system.

I think it's critically important for people to understand that this system of mass incarceration governs not just those who find themselves in prison on any given day, but also all those who are in jail, on probation or parole, as well as all those who are just months away from being locked up again because they are unable to find work or housing due to their criminal record. Today there are more than 7 million people under formal correctional control in the United States, but only 1.5 million are in prison. The rest - more than 5.5 million - are in jail, on probation or parole. Probationers are the clear majority of those who are under community supervision (85 percent), and only 19 percent of them have been convicted of a violent offense. Most probationers have been convicted of drug possession offenses. More than 50 million Americans are saddled with criminal records that will follow them for the rest of their lives, locking them into a permanent second-class status. .

MK: How does the "war on drugs" figure into the arrests and branding of particularly black males as "criminals"?

MA: The war on drugs has been the engine of mass incarceration. Drug convictions alone constituted about two-thirds of the increase in the federal prison population and more than half of the increase in the state prison population between 1985 and 2000, the period of our prison system's most dramatic expansion. Drug convictions have increased more than 1000% since the drug war began. To get a sense of how large a contribution the drug war has made to mass incarceration, consider this: There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.