A new presidential administration brings new ideas, plans and action to the White House. While this election has resulted in a very unlikely man assuming the position of president, this has not changed the fact that we will see new laws implemented over the next four years. Clearly, this is true with the amount of executive orders we have witnessed already in the past two weeks. And though I hope something positive happens, I fear for the current state of mass incarceration in America.
Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” argues that mass incarceration is not the fact that the U.S. jails more citizens than another country in the world. Rather, it’s the “larger web of laws, rules, policies and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison.” Alexander also argues that that web replaced slavery as the racial caste system.
Mass incarceration was the result of a backlash against African-Americans gaining equality during the Civil Rights era. Due to protests, arrests and then rising crime rates, many politicians took a “tough” stance on crime which included taking part in the “War on Drugs” which disproportionately targeted black people and increased our prison population by millions within a matter of years. Presidents during this time period — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton — were notorious for running on racist platforms carefully hidden by language declaring they were “tough on crime.” But, as Alexander argues, they were only tough on African-Americans for the sake of gaining the angry, rural, white vote.
In “The New Jim Crow,” Alexander wrote, “There are more people in prisons just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.” That is horrifying. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes have resulted in vast amounts of inmates serving time for petty crimes like drug possession. Four out of five arrests concerning drugs were for possession in 2005. It is a huge misconception that the War on Drugs has been tough on big drug lords. No, it has thrown addicts in jail rather than helping them with their addictions.
Why did politicians go to all this trouble to lock up huge numbers of our population, specifically, as Alexander argues, African-Americans? The answer is not simple, but there are some facts that make this easier to understand.
When a person is convicted of a felony, they can no longer vote and they could be denied public housing assistance. According to numerous scholars like Devah Pager, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, felons also face employment discrimination once they’re released from prison.
In order for minorities to be successful in this country, our system has to stop setting them up for failure. As reported by investigative reporter Gary Webb, crack-cocaine was literally placed into African-American communities during Reagan’s presidency by the CIA. Last year, according to both the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, African-Americans made up 14.4 percent of the total population in America, but somehow made up 40 percent of the prison population. This is not because black people simply commit more crimes than whites. Rather, it’s because everything is seemingly stacked against them, and our elected officials refuse to fix these laws. We condemn groups like Black Lives Matter and condescendingly remind them that all lives matter and they already have equality.
What is extremely unfortunate in this particular situation is that President Donald Trump has made it very clear that he is not all that concerned with minority rights. His campaign was and his administration promotes a platform that encourages mass incarceration. He was quoted saying, regarding undocumented immigrants on Nov. 13 during an interview on 60 Minutes, “…we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate.” Private prisons are hopeful about a Trump presidency because he is so anti-immigration and focused on crime. Prisons profiting is something that we need to end, but I fear that it will persist under this administration.
I do not have an exact answer for how to end mass incarceration. My major concern is that with everything unorthodox that Trump is doing at the moment, this problem will fall behind. With the concerns like immigration, executive orders, the great, beautiful wall and his terrible cabinet picks, it is easy to forget about, as reported by the Prison Policy Initiative, the 2.2 million citizens in prisons and county jails. It is also easy to forget about the, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, other 5.85 million adults on probation or parole who can no longer vote because they were convicted of a felony. This country does not have a crime problem; it has an incarceration and education problem. Mass incarceration is an epidemic in this country that needs fixing now.