Jim Crow alive and well in U.S. prison system

Here's something you won't hear much about in the coming Maryland gubernatorial election: The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate and a de facto racial caste system that discriminates against hundreds of thousands of black men in the way Jim Crow laws once did. You won't hear anything close to that from Martin O'Malley, the Democrat and present governor, nor from Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican and wannabe-governor-again who, compared to Mr. O'Malley, is a downright progressive on corrections.

You likely won't hear about it from any of the Marylanders running for the U.S. House or Senate this year. And the first black man elected president will probably refrain from such rhetoric, too.

In fact, few politicians want to talk about criminal justice unless pressed to do so. They certainly do not speak about the consequences of the system's design: massive numbers of men, and an inordinate number of black men, in prison, on parole or on probation for drug-related offenses, unable to find employment because of their criminal records, and generally unable to get on track, support their families and reintegrate as contributing citizens.

You don't hear many civil rights leaders talk about this anymore, either.

That's one of the sad conclusions Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and law professor in Ohio, reaches in her important book, "The New Jim Crow," published by the New Press.

Even as a civil rights advocate paying close attention to that realm of law, Ms. Alexander for a long time remained skeptical that racial discrimination fueled the massive expansion of law enforcement and prisons. She thought this was all about poverty and lack of education. "Never did I seriously consider the possibility that a new racial caste system was operating in this country," she writes. "The new system has been developed and implemented swiftly, and it was largely invisible ..."

But a new racial caste system is what Ms. Alexander reluctantly concluded we have. Once you're labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — in housing, employment, voting rights, access to public benefits, even getting a driver's license in some states — are all legal. "As a criminal," Ms. Alexander writes, "you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow."

She says a new racial caste system came into shape following the civil rights movement in the 1960s as politicians promised "law and order" in the wake of civil unrest. "Segregationists distanced themselves from an explicitly racist agenda," Ms. Alexander writes. "They developed instead the racially sanitized rhetoric of ‘cracking down on crime' — rhetoric that is now used freely by politicians of every stripe."

A few years later, Ronald Reagan brought us the war on drugs, law enforcement agencies went arrest-crazy and the prison populations started to grow. Mr. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, escalated the war, and Bill Clinton pushed for new laws and even harsher penalties at the federal level. Congress was happy to oblige.

In the mid-1970s, the U.S. prison population was about 300,000.

Today it is roughly 2.4 million. Add to that adults on parole or probation, and the number is more like 7.5 million. Nonwhites make up close to 70 percent of the incarcerated, and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says more than 10 percent of all black males in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison.

During the time of this explosion in prison populations, drug arrests climbed while property crime and violent crime dropped. "It has been changes in our laws — particularly the dramatic increases in the length of prison sentences — that have been responsible for the growth of our prison system, not increases in crime," Ms. Alexander points out.

Of course, the politicians won't tell you this.

They see nothing to gain by raising such issues, noting such distinctions and questioning such a system. This, despite the fact that considerable taxpayer funds are used to perpetuate it, with all its negative consequences — recidivism among offenders, unemployment, families trapped in poverty without the presence and support of men — to the larger society.

"More African Americans are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began," Ms. Alexander writes. "This extraordinary circumstance — unheard of in the rest of the world — is treated here in America as a basic fact of life, as normal as separate water fountains were just a half century ago."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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