This week may kill me. I thought so yesterday, and that was before I received a request to do a guest lecture on very little notice. That means light to nonexistent original blogging here.
While I’m all tied up being productive, head on over to Ed’s. He’s just finished up (I think) a short set of posts that briefly lay out the inequalities exposed in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (recently out in paperback). I recommend reading the book if you have the time, but Ed’s posts will at least give you the background.
She writes about the case of Christopher Lee Armstrong, who was arrested in 1992 on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. The prosecutor decided to try Armstrong in federal court, where the penalties were much higher than in state court, and the federal public defenders who handled his case found it remarkable that they had never seen a single case of a white defendant in a case involving crack tried in federal court. Over the previous three years, they had handled 53 such cases; 48 of the defendants were black, 5 were Latino. None were white.
We have the perception in this country that powder cocaine is a drug used primarily by white people, while crack cocaine is used primarily by black people. That perception is false.
It starts with the police and the choices they make. Study after study shows that the various racial groups buy and sell drugs at nearly the same rates, and that drug transactions are almost entirely racially segregated — blacks sell to blacks, whites sell to whites, Latinos sell to Latinos, and so forth. But police departments make drugs bought and sold by minorities almost their exclusive focus. When making decisions about who to pull over on the road, who to stop on the sidewalk and question or frisk, they almost invariably choose minorities over whites. And the numbers are absolutely staggering.
The attorney has done no investigation (and couldn’t afford to do it even if they wanted to), hasn’t even spoken to their client, and then has a few minutes to tell them what to do — which is almost always to plead guilty.
There are many reasons for this. First, as I said, they just don’t have the time to go to trial. In Detroit, for instance, there are five part-time public defenders who handle an average of 2,400 cases a year. They can’t spend even one day on a trial, much less spend the time preparing for it, interviewing witnesses, preparing briefs and motions, and so forth. So their goal is to push people through as quickly as possible.
Once you have a felony conviction on your record, even for a minor offense like marijuana possession, you are effectively shut out of mainstream society. Even if you were totally on the straight and narrow and dedicated to bettering yourself, there are incredible roadblocks in your path, especially if you’re poor (as the overwhelming majority of them are).
When you get out of jail, your odds of finding a job are dramatically reduced by having to check the box on the application that says you’ve been convicted of a felony. Want to go to college? You are now ineligible for Pell grants and other forms of tuition assistance.