In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains how racial bias has impacted our criminal justice system, particularly in regard to prosecutorial discretion. Our nation has begun to realize that arrest rates for black and white people are motivated by race, but we have work to do to address bias and race relations beyond initial arrests. How we prosecute and charge individuals who have been arrested is incredibly consequential and can still be impacted by racial bias. How we view someone once they have been arrested often determines the level and type of justice the individual receives, and we do not always base our judgements on rational facts. Alexander highlights this by quoting a study conducted by George Bridges and Sara Steen that was published in the American Sociological Review. Alexander writes, “In the state of Washington, for example, a review of juvenile sentencing reports found that prosecutors routinely described black and white offenders differently. Blacks committed crimes because of internal personality flaws such as disrespect. Whites did so because of external conditions such as family conflict.”
Whether we are aware of it or not, race influences how we see other people. If we think someone is like us or has a similar background to us, we are more likely to associate with that individual and feel more inclined to give that person a break. If we feel that the other person is not like us and we feel somehow threatened by the other individual, our natural tendency is to protect our tribe by being more punitive of the other. Many of the decisions about who we will charge with what crimes are made outside of the courtroom by individual prosecutors. Before a judge has had a chance to review a case and before anyone has heard evidence in a trial, prosecutors can decide whether to drop a charge, whether to seek full penalties, or whether an individual can take a plea bargain to avoid a trial. The power of the prosecutor is addressed in Alexander’s book, but what she first describes is how our experiences and our conscious and unconscious biases affect the way we see the world and how emotional biases tie into the ways we make decisions.
Alexander continues, “The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead is viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few of his friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted. In a social climate where drug dealing is racially defined.”
White, middle-class, college men are one of the social groups that is the most likely to use drugs, but the rates of arrest and prosecution for male college drug users far lower than the rate at which this group uses drugs. Alternatively, black men in our country make up a smaller percentage of the population and of overall drug users, but are arrested and prosecuted at much higher levels. Our nation is much more likely to assume that white college men make honest mistakes in college and will behave better in the future, allowing white college men to face fewer consequences for crimes related to drugs and other offenses. Alexander’s argument in the quotes I have shared is that we view black people as more dangerous and threatening, and we associate their crimes with personality flaws which makes us more likely to arrest and punish them. Other groups however, which may be more likely to violate drug laws and other laws, we view as having more potential and we see individuals as having made an honest mistake and deserving a second chance. We must be honest about the crimes we punish people for, and we must recognize when we are reacting to an individual based on appearance and racial bias as opposed to reacting to the crime itself.
This reminds me of a few events from the recent world. Marijuana legalization has been gaining steam across the country, but our nation’s Attorney General has instructed federal law enforcement officers to be more strict in following federal marijuana laws. Despite race being a manufactured concept, a congressional representative recently said that it was important to maintain marijuana restrictions because black people reacted to marijuana so negatively, as if there was a true biological difference between white and black people that made them more susceptible to addiction to marijuana. This comment came at about the same time that Alabama won the national championship for college football. The day after Alabama won, a meme was shared across the internet. The photo featured a high school picture from a future white pro football player next to a high school picture of a current black Alabama football player. The two were the same age, but the Alabama player was much more physically developed in high school, more muscular, and much larger. Seeing the photo, a colleague of mine remarked, “Yep, that’s a man right there.” But in reality these were two young boys. One may have looked older and his physical size and development may lead us to ascribe more maturity to him, but he still had the mind of a junior in high school. I share this just to demonstrate that many people across our nation see black people as different from white people, and see black people as being older and than white people. In the case of the congressman, we see a white man generalize a group of people with no scientific backing, and in the case of my colleague we see physical size create an image of black people that not fully representative of who the individual is.
Last summer my class at the University of Nevada, Reno for my Masters in Public Administration was public budgeting. What we discussed in that class was the fact that budgeting in the political process is always political, and never based on completely rational principles. We can do our best to include data and think objectively, but a the end of the day we must make political decisions and judgement calls when we decide where we will allocate funding. How we make those decisions and where we choose to spend money reveal our priorities. This is particularly helpful to understand when we look at our nation’s problem with mass incarceration. A lot of people understand that there are problems with the number of people we arrest and that we underfund a lot of social services, but I don’t think people fully recognize the costs of mass incarceration in purely financial costs, and how those costs relate to other programs or areas where the government could spend money.
Michelle Alexander provides examples of the budget being used to arrest black people in her book The New Jim Crow. Rather than using money for services and programs upstream, before we ever arrest an individual, our resources over the years have shifted toward our police and prisons, making it easier to arrest people and providing funding to keep people incarcerated. Alexander writes, “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)”. She continues by quoting Loic Wacquant, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”
What the funding of public housing and prisons in the United States during the 1990s shows us is where our priorities lied regarding race, incarceration, and public housing. Alexander throughout the book demonstrates how a lack of affordable housing can lead to crime, particularly low level drug dealing charges. By taking away funding for public housing we set up a situation where poor people can barely afford a place to live and turn to illegal forms of earning money. Down stream this leads to more arrests and greater prison costs. Getting ahead of the drug dealing and arrest cycle in some cases is as simple as providing better housing (or any form of housing at all) so that an individual can work a basic job and afford housing.
Ultimately, our nation’s priority has been to punish those who we decide are bad apples rather than help those individuals create a situation where they don’t have to resort to illegal activity in the first place. We have conveniently told ourselves that success, failure, crime, and opportunities are the results of individual actions. The role of the collective and the importance of our position within society are downplayed when we look at success versus criminality, and as a result, we seek punishment for those who mess up and find it unacceptable to help those who are poor, struggling to avoid drug use, have slight mental health issues, and those who lack the education, skills, and abilities to become more successful in the low level jobs that we undervalue. If our priorities were truly aligned around helping people get a step ahead, or if our priorities were on creating a society where one could pull themselves up by their boot straps, our priorities would be reflected in a budget that did not decimate social services and public housing for those who needed some form of stability to help them get on the right path. Our nation has decided that directing ever greater funding toward police, prisons, and incarceration is a better use of our money as opposed to establishing a budget to fund upstream interventions to prevent crime and help build stability in people’s lives.