From The New Jim Crow: Legal Rules Surrounding the War on Drugs (Part 1)

Continuing to provide a few salient quotes from Michelle Alexander’s powerful book on the racial dynamics of the criminal justice system.  Today’s quotes come from chapter 2:  “The Lockdown,” which discusses the legal rules and procedures governing (and encouraging) the “War on Drugs.”

  • It has been estimated that 95 percent of Pipeline [A DEA funded police stop-and-search program begun in 1984] stops yield no illegal drugs.  One study found that up to 99 percent of traffic stops made by federally funded narcotics forces result in no citation and that 98 percent of task-force searches during traffic stops are discretionary searches in which the officer searches the car with the driver’s verbal “consent” but has no other legal authority to do so.  (71)

  • In an effort to provide some minimal protection for motorists, the Ohio court adopted a bright-line rule, that is, an unambiguous requirement that officers tell motorists they are free to leave before asking for consent to search their vehicles.  At the very least, the justices reasoned, motorists should know that they have the right to refuse consent and to leave, if they so choose.  The U.S. Supreme Court struck down this basic requirement as “unrealistic.”  In so doing, the Court made clear to all lower courts that, from now on, the Fourth Amendment should have no meaningful constraints on the police in the War on Drugs.  (68)

  • At the time the drug war was declared, illegal drug use and abuse was not a pressing concern in most communities.  The announcement of a War on Drugs was therefore met with some confusion and resistance within law enforcement, as well as among some conservative commentators… The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration.  In order for the war to actually work– that is, in order for it to succeed in achieving its political goals– it was necessary to build consensus among state and local law enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns.  The solution: cash.  Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. (72-73)

  • SWAT teams originated in the 1960s and gradually became more common in the 1970s, but until the drug war, they were used rarely, primarily in extraordinary emergency situations, such as hostage takings, hijackings, or prison escapes.  That changed in the 1980s, when local law enforcement agencies suddenly had access to cash and military equipment specifically for the purpose of conducting drug raids.  Today, the most common use of SWAT teams is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry in to the home… The rate of increase in the use of SWAT teams has been astonishing.  In 1972, there were just a few hundred paramilitary drug raids per year in the United States.  By the early 1980s, there were three thousand annual SWAT deployments, by 1996 there were thirty thousand, and by 2001 there were forty thousand. (75)

  • Generally, the financial incentives offered to local law enforcement to pump up their drug arrests have not been well publicized, leading the average person to conclude reasonably (but mistakenly) that when their local police departments report drug arrests have doubled or tripled in a short period of time, the arrests reflect a surge in illegal drug activity, rather than an infusion of money and an intensified law enforcement effort.  One exception is a 2001 report by the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin… The Times reported that police had an extraordinary incentive to use their new equipment for drug enforcement: the extra federal funding the local police departments received was tied to antidrug policing.  The size of the disbursements was linked to the number of city or county drug arrests.  Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding.  Non-drug related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime.  As a result, when Jackson County, Wisconsin quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, the county’s federal subsidy quadrupled, too. (77-78)

  • State and local law enforcement agencies were granted the authority to keep, for their own use, the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war.  This dramatic chance in policy gave state and local police an enormous stake in the War on Drugs– not in its success, but in its perpetual existence. (78)

  • The actual operation of drug forfeiture laws seriously undermines the usual rhetoric offered in support of the War on Drugs, namely that it is the big “kingpins” that are the target of the war.  Drug-war forfeiture laws are frequently used to allow those with assets to buy their freedom, while drug users and small-time dealers with few assets to trade are subjected to lengthy prison terms.  In Massachusetts, for example, an investigation by journalists found that on average a “payment of $50,000 in drug profits won a 6.3 year reduction in a sentence for dealers,” while agreements of $10,000 or more bought elimination or reduction of trafficking charges in almost three-fourths of such cases. (79-80).

Suggested Link From

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


Related articles


2 thoughts on “From The New Jim Crow: Legal Rules Surrounding the War on Drugs (Part 1)

What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s