Politics-Government, Reviews.

The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration

Book Book Review, Title The new Jim Crow, Author Michelle Alexander, Rating 5.0, Michelle Alexander

The new Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander

Book Review



Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is an important and tightly argued treatise on the mass incarceration of black and brown people in the United States since the acceleration of the War on Drugs in the mid-1980’s. Most of the incarcerations have been for low level possession, and have disproportionately affected minorities: According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms, yet black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones.

Alexander’s own summary follows:

The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage of mass incarceration. The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases.

The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded with cash – through drug forteiture laws and federal grant programs – for rounding up as many people as possible, and they operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that were once considered inviolate. Police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent’. Because there is no meaningful check on the exercise of police discretion, racial biases are granted free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selecting whom to stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.

The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to ‘load up’ defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be legally challenged for racial bias. Once convicted, due to the drug war’s harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the U.S. spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders any where else in the world. While under formal control, virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction. This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released. They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage.

The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment. This term is meant to describe the unique set of criminal sanctions that are imposed on individuals after they step outside the prison gates, a form of punishment that operates outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. These sanctions are imposed by operation of law rather than decisions of a sentencing judge, yet they often have a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and be released again, caught up in a closed circuit of perpetual marginalization.

Leonard Pitts reviewed the book shortly after it was published, and brought out some of the most important points Alexander makes :

She contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new segregation. She has a point. Yes, the War on Drugs is officially race-neutral. So were the grandfather clause and other Jim Crow laws whose intention and effect was nevertheless to restrict black freedom. The War on Drugs is a war on African-American people and we countenance it because we implicitly accept certain assumptions sold to us by news and entertainment media, chief among them that drug use is rampant in the black community. But. The. Assumption. Is. WRONG. According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, WHITES are far and away the biggest users — and dealers — of illegal drugs. So why aren’t cops kicking THEIR doors in? Why aren’t THEIR sons pulled over a dozen times in nine months? Why are black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones? Why aren’t WHITE communities robbed of their fathers, brothers, sons?

The effect is in fact massive: Around one-third of adult black males in the U.S. have been swept up into mass incarceration since the War on Drugs commenced under the Nixon Administration, and heavily accelerated under the Reagan Administration, most for low level marijuana or cocaine possession convictions, and those not still incarcerated carry the life-long stigma of a felony conviction, which keeps them from voting, allows them to be discriminated against in trying to get a job, housing, or in accessing various public programs. The voting effect alone would have likely changed the results of many of the past thirty years of national electoral contests.

The Supreme Court in the last fifteen years has systematically disallowed the 4th and 14th amendments to be applied when legal challenges have been made to the myriad laws and public policies that have been woven to create this blatantly unfair treatment of people of color in this country. Since there are relatively few white people who are caught up in this same web, since the laws are written as race-neutral but enforced predominantly only in communities of color, despite the far greater number of white people who commit the same crimes, there is a thin patina of color-blindness that provides cover for the many apologists for this system of mass incarceration.

It is a national shame, pure and simple. Awareness of this system is the first step in finding ways to correct it, and correct the millions of injustices it has perpetrated in the last thirty years.

Recently there have been small steps to address aspects of these injustices: The highly discriminatory Stop and Frisk policies of the NYPD have been challenged and the city is starting to take steps to monitor its usage, and the Justice Department has announced a policy change in the War on Drugs to stop prosecuting low level marijuana and cocaine possession at the Federal level. There are so many laws at the Federal level, which provide much of the funding and draconian sentencing, and at the state and local level, which allow police to openly profile possible drug violators racially, that need to be reviewed and modified for fairness and appropriateness; this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Just as important, public attitudes and various laws and public policies regarding the lifelong discrimination against convicted felons need to be examined and changed: Is lifelong punishment and the effective creation of a permanent felon under-caste really in the best interests of our communities and nation?

Low level drug usage arguably causes less damage to our polity than does alcohol abuse: Many more deaths are associated directly to alcohol from drunk driving or the destruction of many a liver in a given year, yet our legal response to alcohol does not incarcerate millions of people, and in fact treats alcohol more as a health problem, with some of our public response being the funding of alcohol abuse treatment programs. The same response for marijuana and cocaine abuse seems warranted: the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, even on its own terms, and locked up many more people for drug abuse per capita than any other nation on earth. It is time to declare the War on Drugs over, and concentrate on cleaning up its toxic effect on our citizens, particularly its unfair focus on people of color.

This is a must-read book.


Briefly Noted, Title The House I Live In, Studio British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Rating 4.0,

The House I Live In (2012)

Director: Eugene Jarecki

Briefly Noted



The House I Live In, by Eugene Jarecki, was recently released, and provides a one hour and forty eight minute overview of the costly and failed War on Drugs, including some commentary by Michelle Alexander. This documentary expands the analysis to the effects on the poor white population, also.

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