‘New Jim Crow’ author lectures on criminal justice inequalities
America’s criminal justice system is racially and socially oppressive, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued in her recent speech on campus.
Addressing a crowd of undergraduates, law students, adults from the community, and local middle and high school students, Alexander, author of the 2010 bestselling book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said most Americans believe their justice system only requires minor tinkering.
But, Alexander said, the facts that prison corporations are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and many rural communities are economically reliant on prisons has led her to believe that more fundamental social movement is required to reform the system.
“If you’re not directly impacted by this system, you can easily go your whole life without having any idea of what is going on,” Alexander said.
The Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom in Anheuser-Busch Hall was packed to capacity for Alexander’s speech, and extra chairs were needed even in the overflow room. It was the keynote address at the conference, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Washington University School of Law’s Clinical Education Program.
Alexander talked about how Americans can turn on their televisions and see symbols of African-American social progress like President Barack Obama and the first family but that those examples are not fully representative.
“But then you drive less than a mile from the White House, and you find the other America,” Alexander said.
“Today, millions of children in America grow up believing that one day, they too will go to jail,” she added. “In our poorest, most segregated communities, young people are shuttled from our decrepit, under-funded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”
Incarceration rates in America have risen despite reduction in crime, and most legal scholars would argue that the trends in crime rate and prison population are independent of each other, Alexander said. She connected soaring incarceration to the racially defined war on drugs.
“Most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetimes,” Alexander said, eliciting chuckles from the audience. “You don’t have to raise your hand—I see heads nodding.”
Alexander added that drug offenses usually serve as initiations of future felons into the criminal justice system but only for people of color.
“What they initially get swept in for is some nonviolent, relatively minor offense—the very sorts of crimes that occur with equal frequency in middle-class white communities or college campuses but go largely ignored,” Alexander said. “They’re swept in, branded criminals and felons, and then stripped of the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement—relegated to a permanent second-class status, a status from which they will most likely never escape.”
Alexander said methods of crime prevention like stop-and-frisk allow some people to feel safe but at a significant cost for others.
While proponents of stop-and-frisk often argue that elimination of similar policies, including mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws, would reverse progress in crime prevention, junior Gabe Rubin, who attended Alexander’s talk, disagreed.
“If anything, mass incarceration leads to higher crime rates because when people get out of prison, they’re marked as felons, and they can’t get educational opportunities or employment opportunities,” Rubin said. “If we actually made an attempt to make our penal system more of a rehabilitative system…we would see actual improvement in the quality of life of all members of our society.”
Last semester, Rubin worked with students and some professors in the history department to start Students for the Washington University Prison Education Project. Modeled after a program at Bard College, the organization would have helped prison inmates work toward degrees. But the group could not secure funding from the University.
In the meantime, Rubin suggested students realize that issues that may not directly affect them are still within close proximity.
“When something is happening a mile or two miles down the road, that should be directly affecting you,” Rubin said, “regardless of the fact that it might not touch you on a daily basis.”