Michelle Alexander is the author of the bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Speaking at a book event organized last week by the Pasadena Public Library and the Flintridge Center, she informed a standing-room only crowd that:
“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”
This was the first of many shocking facts elucidated by the Ohio State law professor, who has experience as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun after graduating from Stanford Law. According to her, current drug policies have created an unjust and discriminatory legal system that has led to a disproportionate number of black Americans in prison.
“Growing crime rates don't explain the skyrocketing numbers of black – and increasingly brown – men caught in America's prison system,” she said, pointing to statistics that show crime rates are at historical lows after having fluctuated for the past 30 years. “Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” she said.
In some inner-city communities, four out of five black youth can expect to serve time.
The blowback, according to Alexander, is a vicious cycle of repeat offenses after having been officially disenfranchised. Many black men are prevented from voting, living in public housing, obtaining employment or loans, and denied educational opportunities. The circumstances are such that seventy percent return to prison within two years.
Dick Price, writing for LA Progressive, chronicled the event. Price makes an important link between America's undeniably cancerous military-industrial complex – with its lust for occupation abroad – to the internal drug war which Alexander says is feeding a prison-industrial complex.
Some proponents of last year's failed ballot initiative, Prop 19, hoped their efforts to decriminalize possession of marijuana in California would have been the catalyst needed to officially dismantle the drug-war machine. But, as Alexander points out:
“if we were to return prison populations to 1970 levels, before the War on Drugs began, more than a million people working in the system would see their jobs disappear.”
Such a politically and economically entrenched industry will not relinquish power of its own volition, especially in California where high rates of illegal immigration produce a prime market for a new crop of private prisons.
When discussing solutions, Alexander told attendees the first step would be to support the work of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to finding alternatives to America's failed drug war. The DPA cosponsored the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 which was defeated 54 percent to 47 percent last November. The Marijuana Legalization Initiative is likely to return to the ballot next year.