Mass Incarceration. The New Jim Crow. The War on Drugs. Thanks to Professor Michelle Alexander these phrases are now intimately linked in the minds of social justice advocates and faith leaders as we begin a critical struggle for fairness, justice and human rights in the criminal courts, police precincts and prisons of America. The Next Movement is convinced that America can do better, and that the majority of Americans would want us to do better, if they knew the truth. The truth about systemic incarceration, structural second class status, completely uneven law enforcement practices, oppressive and selectively enforced laws that is filling the prisons of America.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Truth or Myth

The New Jim Crow is an eye opener in many ways, revealing many of the deepest flaws of the American justice system. And, these flaws work to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our society: African-Americans, Hispanics, the poor and disadvantaged. Many of us that consider ourselves fairly aware, still fall victim to some of the myths of our justice system. Take a look at the statements below and determine for yourself if they are Truth or Myth.
  • Most defendants (people accused of a crime) are tried by a jury, who, based on the evidence, decide on their guilt or innocence.
  • The percentage of the population in prison has remained fairly consistent over the last 30 years.
  • The “War on Drugs” is aimed at ridding our communities of drug “kingpins” and big-time dealers.
  • Four out of five drug arrests are for sales.
  • If a police officer asks to search your bag, or your car, you must cooperate and grant permission.
  • The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is at the forefront in training local police departments to enhance their ability to target drug criminals.
  • If you are arrested, you are entitled to legal representation paid for by the state, if you cannot afford an attorney.
  • Children are most likely to be represented by an attorney during juvenile proceedings.
  • Judges are the most powerful law enforcement officers in the criminal justice system.Black youth have 3 times the number of drug-related emergency room visits as white youth.
It is pretty unusual for anyone to get all of these right, unless they have read Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow. If you answered any of these questions with an affirmative (truth), then that answer is incorrect. Within the paragraphs below you'll find a few statements on the statements above (they are purposely a bit clunky, so you won't 'accidentally' see the answers before you answer the questions).

It is indeed rare for someone accused of a crime to get to a jury trial; according to a PBS Frontline report, only 5%. Most will accept a plea offer from the prosecutor. Since the 80's the prison population has gone from 500,000 to over 2.3 million. The "War on Drugs" has little or nothing to do with locking up kingpins, but a lot to do with locking up drug users (4 of 5 arrests are for crimes other than sales). Our DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), as part of their training of local departments, introduced them to techniques for legal stops that turn into drug arrests, without additional probable cause.

Perhaps the biggest myth is that you are entitled to legal representation "if you can't afford it." While it varies by state, in Virginia, for example, you get around $425 if you are charged with a crime facing 20 years or less (good luck finding competent counsel for that), and in Wisconsin, to qualify for state assistance you have to earn less than $3,000 a year. Sadly, in very few cases will a juvenile proceeding include a defense attorney.

It is easy to assume that the judge is the most powerful person in our justice system, but the reality is that judicial hands have been tied with legislation in many cases (mandatory minimum sentences, 3 strikes laws, etc.). Even if that were not the case, the fact that the majority of cases never get to a judge leaves the power in the hands of prosecutors. They decide the charges, and negotiate the plea agreements, and are usually the most critical power relationship in a criminal case.

Lastly, while we are conditioned to think of African American community as the primary drug users, the fact is that white youth are admitted to hospitals 3 times as often for drug related emergency visits.

So, how did you do?