Every so often a book comes along that shakes up the national gabfest in a way that makes all of us talk about an old problem with a new urgency.
Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” sparked a movement to preserve urban neighborhood diversity against developers’ bulldozers.
Michael Harrington’s 1962 “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” helped spur President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring” gave flight to what became the environmental preservation movement.
Now 10 years have passed since another breakthrough book shook up the criminal justice debate: legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Since hers was hardly the first study to claim racial bias in our nation’s criminal justice system, she recalls in an essay that she wrote for the book’s 10th anniversary edition, many people told her not to expect much reaction. Instead, the book climbed The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for nearly 250 weeks.
A decade later, it is easier to look back and see what made this book stand out — and ignite another debate, even as states such as Illinois expunge thousands of minor drug convictions. With ample statistics and historical narratives, she gave voice to what many people had long suspected, especially in black communities. The surge in black incarceration that followed decades of wars on drugs had become, whether by accident or design, a “new Jim Crow,” she argued, metaphorically resembling the original version of racial segregation banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The nation’s criminal justice system uses the war on drugs to enforce forms of racial discrimination, oppression and “social control” that most of us thought had gone away with the hard-won victories of the civil rights era.
For this, she has received some scholarly pushback, even from those who share her concern for racially disproportional incarceration rates. In his book “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform,” John Pfaff, a Fordham University law professor, argues that Alexander makes too much of the statistics for drug offenders, since they make up only a small part of the prison population — and nonviolent drug offenders an even smaller part.
Most prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes, he points out, and most American prisoners are in county and state justice systems, not the federal system.
Indeed, the federal system houses 221,000 inmates, compared with 1.3 million in state prisons and 612,000 in local jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative in 2019.
Although the proportion of state prisoners whose primary crime was a drug offense rose sharply from 1980 to 1990, when it peaked at 22%, Pfaff writes, that leaves about four-fifths who were found guilty of some other offense. By 2010, it fell to 17%. Bottom line, says the statistics expert: Reducing the incarceration of drug offenders will not do much to reduce prison populations.
Other scholars have made similar claims. Jonathan Rothwell, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, tries nobly to reconcile the differences by comparing the time and length of sentences for different crimes. Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades, but those offenders tend to serve shorter sentences than those convicted of violent crimes.
“Rolling back the war on drugs would not totally solve the problem of mass incarceration,” he writes, “but it could help a great deal, by reducing exposure to prison.”
That makes sense. So do a number of black community residents who would like to see tougher law enforcement. The get-tough approach is much less popular now. That helps to explain why former Vice President Joe Biden seemed to be caught in a time warp as he tried to defend his support of the get-tough 1994 crime law that Alexander blames for making the mass incarceration problem worse.
As some of us remember, that bill was supported by many black folks, including the Congressional Black Caucus, although with some reservations as they called for other reforms, too.
But today, years after the totally unexpected crime drop in the mid-1990s, more people of all races are asking questions about the role race plays in our justice system. After all, crack cocaine, primarily a plague in black communities, was treated as a crime problem. Opioid abuse, more closely identified with poor white communities, has been treated as a public health problem.
Racial disparities like that are not easily brushed off as coincidence. Nor should they be. Instead, they help to explain the popularity of Alexander’s book.