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

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.”

  • The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs.  In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine.  The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years.  By contrast, in other developed countries around the world, a first-time drug offense would merit no more than six months in jail, if jail time is imposed at all. (87)

  • Mandatory minimum statutory schemes have transferred an enormous amount of power from judges to prosecutors.  Now, simply by charging someone with an offense carrying a mandatory sentence of ten to fifteen years or life, prosecutors are able to to force people to plead guilty rather than risk a decade or more in prison.  Prosecutors admit that they routinely charge people with crimes for which they technically have probably cause but which they seriously doubt they could ever win in court.  They “load up” defendants with charges that carry extremely harsh sentences in order to force them to plead guilty to lesser offenses. (88)

  • The pressure to plea-bargain and thereby “convict yourself” in exchange for some kind of leniency is not an accidental by-product of the mandatory-sentencing regime.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has noted that “the value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies not in its imposition, but in its value as a bargaining chip to be given away in return for the resource-saving plea from the defendant to a more leniently sanctioned charge.”  (88)

  • Mandatory sentencing laws are frequently justified as necessary to keep “violent criminals” off the streets, yet these penalties are imposed most often against drug offenders and those who are guilty of nonviolent crimes.  In fact, under three- strike regimes, such as the one in California, a “repeat offender” could be someone with a single prior case decades ago.  First and second strikes are counted by individual charges, rather than individual cases, so a single case can result in first, second, and even third strikes.  The prosecutor has the discretion to charge related but individual charges as separate strikes.  For example, imagine a young man arrested at age seventeen for a school yard fight tried and convicted as an adult.  A few years later, he is struggling to survive, having been branded a felon and unable to find work.  He passes two bad checks, desperate for cash.  That’s three strikes: one for the prior assault and one for each bad check.  His children will be raised without a father. (91)

  • Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits… Barred from public housing by law, discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to “check the box” indicating a felony conviction on employment applications for nearly every job, and denied licenses for a wide range of professions, people whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small amount of drugs for recreational use find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy– permanently. (94)

  • No wonder, then, that most people labeled felons find their way back into prison.  According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, about 30 percent of released prisoners in its sample were rearrested within six months of release.  Within three years, nearly 68 percent were rearrested at least once for a new offense.  Only a small minority are rearrested for violent crimes; the vast majority are rearrested for property offenses, drug offenses, and offenses against the public order.  (94)

  • The extraordinary increase in prison admissions due to parole and probation violations is due almost entirely to the War on Drugs.  With respect to parole, in 1980, only 1 percent of all prison admissions were parole violators.  Twenty years later, more than one third (35 percent) of prison admissions resulted from parole violations.  To put the matter more starkly: About as many people were returned to prison for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons.  (95)

Suggested Link From

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


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