The Burden of a Nation

Today we have a problem with the number of people we arrest and the destroyed potential futures for those who have been arrested. As we arrest greater numbers of individuals for drug related offenses, the more families we break apart, the fewer people we have available to work, and the more our nation must spend on housing those who have been arrested. Prior to reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, I had assumed that this system operated fairly and I had criticized those who had been arrested for their own faults and personal shortcomings. What I did not see before her book are the choices that we made as a society that lead to the crime, the policing, and the levels of arrests that we see in our nation. We have a choice in determining the criminality of low level drugs like marijuana, and we have a choice in how harshly we will arrest and punish those who break the laws that we create. At a certain point, we must begin asking ourselves, beyond what an individual has done wrong, what has society done wrong so that so many people are violating drug laws, and should our response be imprisonment or less expensive and less socially damaging responses to crime.

In her book, Alexander writes, “Du Bois got it right a century ago: “the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” It is up to all of us, not just up to criminals and those living in ghettos or low income areas, to solve the crime problems our nation faces and to strengthen our communities. Those of us who do not act and do not take steps to make our world better are equally at fault as those who commit crimes and make our society more segregated and less equitable. Alexander continues, “The reality is that, just a few decades after the collapse of one caste system, we constructed another. Our nation declared a war on people trapped in racially segregated ghettos—just at the moment their economies had collapsed—rather than providing community investment, quality education, and job training when work disappeared.” Our choices created the ghettos and in response to the effects of concentrated power, we decided that incarceration was the best option to deal with the crime that resulted. Alexander looks at the history of segregation in our country and how that has impacted our development, our communities, and the policies put forth by those in power. Our reaction to minorities has historically been to shut them out and deny them of opportunity, and today, when people in communities that have been isolated and exiled result to crime, we find justification in our actions and arrests.

“Of course those communities are suffering from serious crime and dysfunction today. Did we expect otherwise? Did we think that, miraculously, they would thrive?” Alexander pushes us to reflect on ghettos and segregated areas of concentrated poverty. Rather than uniting our communities and putting forth greater resources to help people in ghettos, we have decided to arrest individuals, which diminishes future potential and career opportunities, feeding back into a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, and disfunction. Rather than try to build the areas in new and novel ways that put low income individuals next to more affluent families and people, we isolated the poor and the minorities so that they could be forgotten. It is expensive to provide community support to those who need it and to improve our ghettos, but it is certainly expensive to warehouse individuals in prisons and jails and to react to the crime committed by those who have lost future possibilities or live in disjointed households.

Views on Criminality in the United States

In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander explains the ways that we have turned the prison system and our treatment of criminals into a modern caste system. She looks at the way we approach criminality and is critical of the open prejudice shown toward those who have been arrested or convicted of crimes. Her book was eye opening to me because of the way she looked at crime, who commits crime, who is punished for crime, and who seems to be able to commit crime without worrying about punishment. She is able to demonstrate with study after study that our system unreasonably targets minority populations and has different outcomes that limit individual’s futures and shapes the lives and communities in which people live.

 

I was particularly struck by the similarity that exists between those who commit crimes and are punished and pushed out from society and those who never commit crimes and manage to move through life with success. Alexander challenges this idea writing, “The notion that a vast gulf exists between ‘criminals’ and those of us who have never served time in prison is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about ‘them’.” White, brown, and black criminals are somehow viewed as the other and as a problem that we, the morally sound part of society, must deal with. We cast these individuals out because they are somehow flawed and unable to participate in society at a fundamentally humane level. But this idea is not backed by real evidence of behavior, especially as we have been increasing our sentencing for low level drug crimes and over policing minority neighborhoods.

 

Alexander continues, “Most Americans violate drug laws in their life-time. Indeed most of us break the law not once but repeatedly throughout our lives. Yet only some of us will be arrested, charged, convicted of a crime, branded a criminal or felon, and ushered into a permanent under-caste.” We don’t seem to recognize how frequently the law is broken, particularly with drug laws, and how arbitrary our punishment and legal system can be. When we limit housing and limit employment opportunities to those who have been arrested, we limit the ability of people who were arrested to return to society and become a contributing member of society. We make up stories about those who were arrested so that we don’t have to confront the brutal fact that we arrest minority populations at far greater rates than we should, and our stories help us feel justified in our actions and morally superior to other people. Ensuring that everyone in society can advance and ensuring that we can have robust and supportive communities means that we must re-think our criminal justice system and re-think what it means to be a criminal.

Do Racial Minorities Commit More Crime?

An argument you may hear about why arrest rates are so high for black and latino people in the United States is that those two groups commit crimes (particularly drug crimes) at higher levels than white people. The evidence for this is the number of black and latino people incarcerated relative to white people. If white people committed more crimes relative to black and latino people, we would have a prison population that was more representative of the non-prison population. This logic however, is incorrect.

Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow looks at this argument directly as she examines our criminal justice system and evaluates whether we police and arrest fairly or in a way that disproportionately affects black people and other minority groups. Alexander cites evidence throughout her book to suggest that our policing habits and incarceration practices are influenced by racial attitudes and implicit bias. When you view the system through this lens, you see that the argument above becomes an excuse for racial disparities in policing and an excuse for the poor economic and social outcomes for our minority populations.  In response to such faulty thinking, Alexander writes, “The former New Jersey attorney general dubbed this phenomenon the ‘circular illogic of racial profiling.’ Law enforcement officials, he explained, often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted.”

Further, citing research in racial profiling, Alexander writes, “Whites were actually more likely than people of color to be carrying illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In fact, in New Jersey, whites were almost twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband as African Americans, and five times as likely to be found with contraband as latinos.”

The New Jim Crow makes it clear that our prisons are over populated with black and latino individuals relative to the crime they commit (particularly drug crimes) and that this over representation is the result of years of racial bias in our country. The way we think about crime in low income neighborhoods, the way we think about drug offenses, and the way we review and evaluate criminal activity puts racial minorities at a disadvantage, and the arrest rates for black and brown people are evidence of our racial biases in policing rather than a justification for our policing and incarceration patterns.

Bias, Race, and Sentencing

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.

Stop and Frisk

In the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, the court ruled that stop and frisk laws were constitutional on the grounds that an officer “is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area” to search individuals for dangerous weapons that could be used against the officer. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes how this ruling came to be, and what it has meant for our nation and particularly black citizens in the United States. The court ruled that stop and frisk laws do not violate the fourth amendment which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. While not intended to have racially disparate outcomes, historically stop and frisk laws have targeted minority populations.

 

In 1968 Justice Douglas provided the dissenting opinion in Terry v. Ohio. He argued that the ruling lead the nation down a totalitarian path by granting unreasonable power to the police. Alexander writes that, “He objected to the notion that police should be free to conduct warrantless searches whenever they suspected someone is a criminal, believing that dispensing with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement risked opening the door to the same abuses that gave rise to the American Revolution.” She continues to describe the ways in which stop and frisk rules have been used to search black and latino individuals for drugs and weapons even when those individuals showed no sign of criminal or threatening behavior.

 

Our nation today is struggling to understand just how much power the police should have, and just how much protection citizens should have from the police. A big challenge in the debate, which prevents people from reaching a shared conclusion, has to do with how and where our police are active. Many white people do not experience the same searches that black and latino people experience, so an increase in police power is not a threat to them, but rather a reassurance. Black and latino people, who are more likely to live in concentrated poverty and less likely to own a car, are more vulnerable to searchers from the police, and feel more threatened by increases in police power. Data suggest that white people, black people, and latino people commit crimes at about the same rates, but historical factors shaping housing policy and wealth accumulation have impacted where those crimes take place. Alexander explains that part of the reason stop and frisk rules have been so disparate in their impact on black people is because black people are more likely to commit crimes in public places compared to white people who may be committing the same crimes but from the safety of their homes or gated communities. It is important to note that the types of crimes that we are talking about being committed are low level drug offenses, such as possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance. The data indicates that our patterns of arrests and policing are shaped by more than a response to crime. Also, where, when, and how crime is committed is influenced by many factors, such as current economic and social conditions. Our past and our decisions have shaped who is stopped, who is searched, and who is protected or disadvantaged by increases in police power. Stop and frisk may have been introduced to help protect officers and individuals from dangerous criminals, but it has instead become a tool to identify and arrest minority drug users who are not able to carry drugs in personal vehicles or use and distribute drugs from the comfort of nice homes or gated communities.

Budgets Reveal our Priorities

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.

The Safety Myth

I have heard people, television show hosts, and family members make the argument that black communities are not over policed or over arrested because black people support the levels of policing that take place in their communities. I have heard the argument that confederate symbols really are not a problem because a famous black celebrity or athlete said they have never been bothered by them. I have heard the argument that black people want police protection and safety, so we should not be critical of our police who arrest black people in our ghettos and low income neighborhoods.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this argument and is able to break down some of the thinking taking place. He writes, “according to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice, perhaps the highest value.” Arguments to preserve our policing and arguments that discrimination and inequalities arise because they are what poor and minority communities want misplace the importance justice in our system.

Arguing against safety is difficult. It is hard to say that being safe and protected in your home or neighborhood is not something you want. Everyone would like to have a police force that could be relied upon given the dangers of society, but when  that police force is part of a system that does not provide equal justice, then there are problems in relying on them for protections, crime prevention, and security.

Coats continues and writes about his childhood and walking to school in Baltimore, “What I would not have given, back in Baltimore, for a line of officers, agents of my country and my community, patrolling my route to school! There were no such officers, and whenever I saw the police it meant that something had already gone wrong.” What Coats shows here is that our system was not forward thinking for black communities, but reactive to problems and crimes. Rather than operating in a system meant to reduce and limit dangers, the police reacted to dangerous incidents. Coats says that things had already gone wrong when the police arrived, but I think it is reasonable to say that things had already gone wrong when restrictive housing policies and racial segregation moved wealthier white people to suburbs, created inner city ghettos, and restricted poor minorities to less healthy environmental living spaces. If we valued justice more than our personal safety, we wound not just arrest black people and claim that our unequal justice system was justified by poor communities’ desires for protection from crime.

Continuing Punishment

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker addresses the problem of recidivism in the United States criminal justice system, and asks if society should be doing more to reduce the rates of people continuing crime after serving time and facing subsequent arrests. Many people return to prison after completing sentences for non-violent crimes and the ideas about why and the solutions put forward to reduce relapse into negative behavior are varied. Booker argues that our system is currently not set up in a way to help re-integrate prisoners and that the system creates larger burdens for minority and poor individuals.

 

Booker writes, “People have themselves to blame for their decisions; that is undeniable. But don’t we have a legal obligation to structure a system that is balanced, not savagely slanted against minorities and the poor?” He focuses on the personal responsibility for our decisions and actions, but shows that our decisions and actions do not take place inside a vacuum. Society is a contributing factor, and how we structure our system can in many ways shape how people respond and whether negative actions and behaviors seem to be worth the cost or seem to be the only option one has. Booker continues, “Don’t we have a moral responsibility to offer redemption to someone who has paid his debt instead of unyielding retribution against him and his family?”

 

We are in a challenging place where many of our jobs are becoming service and technology jobs focused on our mind and not on our physical strength. As we move in this direction, our jobs require that we handle more sensitive information and have more interactions with the people that a business depends on. In these jobs, integrity is important, and employers increasingly avoid hiring people that have been arrested. Previous convictions serves as a measuring stick for integrity. As jobs move away from physical labor, we end up with fewer opportunities for those who have past convictions.

 

Many government programs also require background checks for individuals and felony or misdemeanor charges can make someone ineligible for things like housing assistance. As a result, individuals who may struggle to find a job also end up being ineligible for government assistance and are stuck in a situation where their only option appears to be more criminal activity.

 

These individuals may have more opportunities than turning to continued criminal activity, but in a world where everything seems to be telling them that they are no longer a worthy human being, it can be understandable that  someone slips back to crime. The way we treat people who have been arrested often does not align with our beliefs that everyone deserves a second chance. The system as it is set up now does offer some supports for those who have been arrested and need help re-joining society, but our actions seem to show that we would rather isolate those who have been to jail rather than help them re-join society, change their behaviors and actions, and have a second chance. At some point we must look at where we have drawn the line between personal responsibility for negative actions and behaviors, social responsibility for crime and recidivism, and acceptable and appropriate punishment. I believe that at some level we don’t actually care about those who are arrested, and instead choose to draw a line in the moral sand because punishing those who are less moral than we are allows us to feel good about ourselves. In this view, the punishment of others is not about those who have done wrong at all, it is simply about making ourselves feel superior.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.