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Mass incarceration

Jan 18, 2012

from the transcript on Religion & Ethics:

POTTER: More than two million Americans are now imprisoned, four times as many as 30 years ago. The major reason: mandatory sentencing for non-violent crimes and drug charges. But the war on drugs, declared in the 1980s, has not had the effect its backers predicted. Arkansas Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen has seen the results.

JUDGE WENDELL GRIFFEN (Arkansas Circuit Court): Drug use has not declined. All it has done has produced an explosion on our prison population. The whole mandatory sentencing guideline mantra was sort of like the Kool-Aid that we should never have drunk.

POTTER: Behind bars, the racial disparity is striking. Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites, especially for drug offenses, even though the rate of drug use is only slightly higher for blacks. Law professor Michelle Alexander, author of the book, “The New Jim Crow,” says the nation faces a human rights nightmare more than 40 years after the end of legal segregation.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER (Author, “The New Jim Crow“): In cities like Chicago, more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records, and they can be legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits. So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind in the Jim-Crow era are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon.

....JUDGE GRIFFEN: We don’t recognize the God in our brothers and sisters who are in prison, and the biblical imperative is for us to see that our sisters and brothers in prison are our sisters and brothers. We owe it to God to get them out.

ALEXANDER: Just as in the days of slavery it wasn’t enough to shuttle a few to freedom, today we’ve  got to work for the abolition of the system of mass incarceration as a whole and that means, in my view, that the church has got to find its prophetic voice in the era of mass incarceration and really call on politicians and policymakers to undo the massive tragedy that has been done.

POTTER: Some legal reform is underway. States from Ohio to California have approved early release programs and lower penalties for lesser crimes, changes driven largely by the high cost of keeping so many people behind bars.

ALEXANDER: I think Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said we have to be careful of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. If we can afford once again to lock people up en masse, nothing will prevent us from doing so if we don’t learn the most important lessons from this time, which is that none of us should be viewed as disposable. None of us should be treated as throwaway people, rounded up, locked up and then branded criminals and felons and ushered into a permanent second class status. That’s the lesson we have to learn from this time, and it’s not about saving money. It’s about saving lives, saving our own sense of humanity.

Read the whole transcript.

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