Limbaugh, Contraception and Public Opinion »« Hovind Adviser Pleads on Child Abuse Charges

America’s Racist Criminal Justice System, Part 4

I’ve already discussed the undeniable fact that police and prosecutors go after minorities rather than whites, especially when it comes to the war on drugs, and that the system is rigged to prevent any possibility of a fair trial once they’re charged, leading most to plead guilty even if they’re innocent. Now let’s look at what happens to someone once they plead guilty. Short answer: For all practical purposes, they’re screwed.

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. You can’t support yourself, but you’re also now ineligible for many forms of public assistance, including public housing and, in many states, even food stamps. You may not even be allowed to vote for a number of years, or ever, depending on the state you’re in.

On top of that, you’ve probably got a huge bill from the state or county stemming from your stay in jail — fees paid to the public defender office and the courts, per diem charges from the jail, fees paid to the parole officer for keeping track of you. And if you can’t pay them, you can be rearrested for failing to live up to the terms of your probation and thrown back in jail to start the whole process over again. You could hardly design a more perfect system for creating a permanent underclass that is shut out of society, herded into ghettos and prevented from ever improving their lives. This is what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow.

And it doesn’t even have to be motivated overtly by racism. There are built in incentives that push the actors at every level in the same direction to maintain that caste system. Police departments qualify for federal grants by increasing the number of people arrested for drugs, so the focus isn’t on the kingpins but on arresting as many of the low level users and dealers as they can. Prosecutors are elected and they get reelected by pumping up their conviction rate, giving the incentive to get guilty pleas whenever possible. Everyone is acting in their own rational self-interest, even if they aren’t motivated by racism.

The United States has now constructed the most powerful system of mass incarceration the world has ever seen and created a permanent underclass that is not unlike the caste system in India. And the courts have made it all but impossible to bring a legal challenge on due process or equal protection grounds. It is a moral outrage and it must be dismantled.

Comments

  1. laurentweppe says

    And it doesn’t even have to be motivated overtly by racism

    While one does not have to be motivated by racism to become involved in the system, Michelle Alexander’s thesis -I’m reading her book right now- is that the system was deliberately created by the successors of the planter class to replace Jim Crow: She argues that slavery was a tool meant to drive a wedge between Blacks and poor Whites, that once slavery was gone and Black and poor Whites showed early signs of bonding together against the southern upper-class, Jim Crow was made a the new tool meant to drive a wedge between Blacks and poor Whites, and that once Black and poor Whites showed early signs of bonding together against the upper-class during the New-Deal era and the early years of the Civil Rights movement, the upper-class pushed for the creation of a huge Con & ex-Con underclass to replace the collapsing Jim Crow system.
    *
    I’m not disagreeing with Alexander: that racism is a tool of social control for the upper-class is quite obvious, especially to me since, being part of the dreaded “One Percent” I’m very aware of the dirty tricks of my social class (also organizing social class along ethnicities is a clever way to strengthen the tribalistic tendencies of the ruling class: you diminish the probability of rich people having poor relatives therefore reinforcing their insularity and indifference toward the fate of those under them in the social food chain, which in turn diminish the number of people hostile to the system at the top of its totem pool).
    But the fact remains that “it doesn’t have to be motivated overtly by racism” is not a very accurate description of the US justice system: Michelle Alexander is on the contrary arguing that the current american carceral-industrial complex had to be motivated by racism -or at least by the willingness to use racism as a tool of social control- to exist in the first place.

  2. says

    Ugh. This. The social contract is predicated on the idea that if people follow the rules, they reap the benefits of society. Then, we shut them out of society and wonder why they won’t follow the rules.

  3. says

    And if you are rich, you can start your own business and not have to worry about being shut out of all jobs over $9/hour. This is one of many ways the poor get punished a lot harder.

  4. says

    Laurent-

    When I interviewed her last week, I asked her whether she thought this system was set up deliberately or not with that purpose in mind. Her answer was essentially that while many of the people who set up some of the initial parts of this system were clearly motivated by racism, that doesn’t necessarily mean those who are involved in maintaining and enforcing the system need to be. For the majority of people “in the trenches” there is probably unconscious bias involved more than overt racism, and the problem now that the system is in place is that all of the incentives are set up at every level to maintain the status quo — police departments qualify for federal grants by the number of people arrested on drug charges, they get funding from assets seized, prosecutors and judges win reelection by being tough on crime, and so forth. And she then said that we shouldn’t get bogged down in questions of whether the racist result was or is intended or not because it can only distract attention from the undeniable reality that the end result is what it is.

  5. bybelknap says

    We have Joe Biden (any many others) to thank for the failed War on Drugs. Although I guess if you look at it from the side of private prison owners it has been a resounding success.

  6. Aquaria says

    Laurent @ 1 Re the historical claims.

    Some of that definitely doesn’t sound right. I think she’s trying too hard to find the connection, because slavery was here very, very soon after American started being colonized, in 1619, only 12 years after Jamestown was settled. There just weren’t all that many poor whites at that time, not enough to have that be the reason for bring slaves over.

  7. Aquaria says

    Ed:

    The historical stuff is definitely off.

    If you read Peoples History of the US by Howard Zinn, he addresses the very issue of why racial division was born, and attributes it not to slavery, but to the numerous rebellions that took place in the mid- to late-1600s, particularly Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

    In response to it, elites started giving poor whites a few meaningless “perks” to make them feel like they were more like the elites. They were still poor, but they were allowed to buy some cheap land, so they were “landowners” too, while blacks couldn’t buy land.

    Things like that.

  8. says

    But the fact remains that “it doesn’t have to be motivated overtly by racism” is not a very accurate description of the US justice system…

    I’d say it still conveys an important point: Even if it was deliberately set up by racists in power, it doesn’t need a lot of overt racists to keep it going, just individuals being blind to the big picture and how each individual level of subtle racism adds up.

  9. laurentweppe says

    @ Ed

    Her answer was essentially that while many of the people who set up some of the initial parts of this system were clearly motivated by racism, that doesn’t necessarily mean those who are involved in maintaining and enforcing the system need to be

    That’s also what I understood from her book. But that does not means that racism as a cause should be dismissed: the racists as well as all those who have a vested interest in driving a wedge between the minorities and the poors from the majority ethnic group will most probably fight the hardest to keep the current prison system going, and should it collapse, they will undoubtedly try to replace it with a new system having the same effects.

    And she then said that we shouldn’t get bogged down in questions of whether the racist result was or is intended or not because it can only distract attention from the undeniable reality that the end result is what it is.

    Understandable. But I’m not arguing in favor of making the racist nature of the system the alpha and the omega of its critic: I’m merely saying that people should be reminded once in a while that the system is deliberatly -and not accidentaly- rigged.
    A similar pattern emerged in France during the last decade, but then again, since France does not have a two party system, there is an openly racist party to the right of the two mainstream conservative parties: so when Racists R’Us start demanding that French authorities follow the american playbook, it’s less easy for the rest of the population to play dumb.
    ***
    @ Aquaria

    I think she’s trying too hard to find the connection, because slavery was here very, very soon after American started being colonized, in 1619, only 12 years after Jamestown was settled.

    She’s explicitly talking about the systematic enslavement of Blacks and only Blacks which happened after Bacon’s rebellion and makes it clear that she’s not talking about the system of indentured servitude which dominated early colonial Northern America.

  10. says

    Yes, it’s bad. Really bad. Terrifyingly bad. It’s so darn bad even low information ignoramuses are beginning to hear rumors about it.

    “It is a moral outrage and it must be dismantled.”

    How? What are the first steps? What are the “baby steps”? What is anything that can make the entire thing better? Even a little bit better? Stop the drug war? How? Repeal seizure laws? How? If you’ve read some suggestions on how to tackle these problems. I’d love for your “Part 12″ or whatever to address those.

  11. says

    This is a really great series of posts, I would like to go back to the first. I certainly will go searching for it, but you really should inter-link them to make it easy. I plan to refer to these on Facebook. Keep up the good work!

  12. suttkus says

    Could you combine these articles as a PDF or some other nice, single-unit presentation?

  13. wscott says

    I’m starting to think we need a different word for unintentional broken-system racism, to differentiate it from the overt and deliberate kind. The problem is when reformers say “the criminal justice system is racist” what many people *hear* is “cops, judges, etc are racists.” That makes people overly defensive from the start, and implicitly shifts the focus towards assigning blame and away from actually fixing the problem.

    Suggestions?

  14. says

    How? What are the first steps? What are the “baby steps”? What is anything that can make the entire thing better? Even a little bit better?

    Nothing is going to change until you convince enough conservative leaders, and enough of their supporters, that the present system is badly broken and hurting everyone, not just those trapped by it.

    I have a moderate conservative friend who is typically rational about most subjects, but when it comes to the judicial system, he just doesn’t want to know. His answer to everything is “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” — i.e. you are personally responsible for getting yourself into that mess, so you shouldn’t expect anyone to spend any time or money on you to help you get back on your feet.

    Therefore, the first steps have to be to persuade more people like Pat Robertson and Grover Norquist (both of who have begun to see the light) to speak out in conservative arenas about the urgency and desperate need for reform.

    The only alternative I can see is to rebuild a left-of-center majority in the US that is strong enough to overcome the fear of being accused of being soft on crime if they try to do anything. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    So unless conservatives can be persuaded that “the land of the free” shouldn’t be incarcerating many times more of its own people than just about any other free nation on the planet, then little else has much success of getting off the ground.

Leave a Reply