This piece appeared in the February 2014 edition of the LSU Law Center’s Student Publication – The Civilian.
As I began my junior year at Howard University in August of 2011, I was drawn to the story of Troy Davis. Davis had been accused of killing a Georgia police officer nearly 20 years earlier, and, following the adjudication process, he was ultimately sentenced to death. As his imprisonment term dragged on, various trial witnesses began to rescind their earlier testimonies and the Davis case began to receive more scrutiny from the public. In the days immediately preceding his execution, various civil rights advocacy groups employed the use of the hashtag “Too Much Doubt” to raise awareness about the fast-approaching execution of a potentially innocent man. After several stays of execution, the day of reckoning was set on September 21, 2011. When the day arrived, a group of Howard students and DC residents marched to the White House to demonstrate disapproval of Davis’ execution. However, Troy Davis died around 11:00 p.m. that evening. In the wake of his death, my passion for criminal justice reform was born.
In her insightful first book, Professor Michelle Alexander, a faculty member at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, combines a well-researched historical narrative with substantive suggestions for criminal justice reform. Alexander’s primary thesis centers around the perennial presence of an American racial caste system that has existed in three forms since the birth of the United States: slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Alexander argues that the current caste system of mass incarceration has found a great deal of its origin and power in the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs began during the Reagan Administration, and it has provided local law enforcement agencies with substantial federal grants to address the issue of drug usage in communities across the country. Alexander maintains that the aforementioned federal grants bestowed upon law enforcement agencies the ability to arbitrarily determine who they would target in their effort to curb the use of drugs. The result is that myriad Black and Brown people have been relegated to second-class citizenship for non-violent drug offenses.
As stated by Alexander, “Those trapped within the system are not merely disadvantaged, in the sense that they are competing on an unequal playing field or face additional hurdles to political or economic success; rather, the system itself is structured to lock them into a subordinate position.” The current system authorizes legalized discrimination against felons; the people who have been ushered into the system are often denied the right to vote and cannot access public funds for education, among other limitations. Additionally, felons must pay numerous court fees upon their release; even if they are able to overcome insurmountable odds and obtain employment, the government can seize a large percentage of their wages. The effects of this system have resulted in the creation of an undercaste defined largely by racial terms, and this undercaste is constantly denied access to rights that are often taken for granted by other American citizens.
Throughout the book, Alexander asserts that crime rates have not increased in the manner that incarceration rates have over the past three decades. Drug usage occurs at similar rates across communities in America, regardless of the ethnicity of the user. Therefore, Alexander argues that mass incarceration merely represents another form of institutionalized racial control as slavery and Jim Crow did in their respective epochs. In the last chapter of the book, Alexander dedicates a succinct paragraph to preliminary recommendations for reform. She states, “All of the financial incentives granted to law enforcement to arrest poor black and brown people for drug offenses must be revoked. Federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; drug forfeiture laws must be stripped from the books; racial profiling must be eradicated; the concentration of drug busts in poor communities of color must cease; and the transfer of military equipment and aid to local law enforcement agencies waging the drug war must come to a screeching halt.” A policy approach is imperative for these changes to occur, but such an approach must also be accompanied by love and compassion.
Alexander argues that the current “colorblind” society in which we live has been detrimental to African Americans. She states that racial indifference and blindness form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems. She further asserts that as a society, we should hope not for a colorblind society, “but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.” Along with substantial policy reform, love and compassion are necessary to end the current racial caste system of mass incarceration. As a society, our morality is at stake with the continuation of a system that imprisons certain racial groups and relegates them to second-class citizenship at disproportionately high rates. Effective reform should not simply eradicate the system; it should also guarantee that mass incarceration will be the last racial caste system that exists in America. A great deal of work lies ahead, and I am committed to discussing and implementing reform.
– Andrew Hairston