From The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
We may think we know how the criminal justice system works. Television is overloaded with fictional dramas about police, crime, and prosecutor shows such as Law and Order. These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment.
A charismatic police officer, investigator, or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime. He ultimately achieves a personal and moral victory by finding the bad guy and throwing him in jail. That is the made-for-TV version of the criminal justice system. It perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them. These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppresion and control.
Those who have been swept within the criminal justice system know that the way the system actually works bears little resemblance to what happens on television or in movies. Full-blown trials of innocents rarely occur, many people never even meet with an attorney, witnesses are routinely paid and coerced by the government, police regularly stop and search people for no reason whatsoever, penalties for many crimes are so severe that innocent people plead guilty, accepting plea bargains to avoid harsh mandatory sentences, and children, even as young as fourteen, are sent to prisons. Rules of law and procedure, such as guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, can be found easily by all-white juries.
We shall see how the system of mass incarceration actually works. Our focus is the war on drugs. The reason is simple. Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion of incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal and state inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half million people are in prison or jail for drug offenses today compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980, an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. To put the matter in perspective consider this: there are more people in prison and jail today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the war on drugs.
The myth is that the war on drugs is aimed at ridding the nation of drug kingpins or big time dealers--nothing could be further from the truth! You must keep your mind on your freedom, keep freedom on your mind! -Rev. Pinkney
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