Michelle Alexander

  • September 24, 2013

    by Nicandro Iannacci

    As the adage goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which convened a hearing last week to consider mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The meeting came on the heels of recent announcements from Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled change in the executive enforcement of sentencing laws. The reigning congressional climate of polarization, clouded in recent weeks by impending fiscal fights, made all the more compelling the general agreement across ideological divides that change is needed, now.

    Competing legislation introduced this year is evidence of that consensus, even if the parties involved don’t totally agree on specifics. The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was introduced in March; the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), was announced just last month. The bills have much in common, though the Leahy-Paul proposal goes further than its counterpart by eliminating entirely mandatory sentences for selected non-drug crimes.

    Nevertheless, the sponsors of both bills were short on comparison and long on unison as they addressed the issue before a packed hearing room featuring numerous family members of loved ones serving mandatory sentences. Sen. Leahy, chairman of the committee, called the current system “unsustainable,” noting that the U.S. prison population has risen 700 percent since 1970, paralleling a rise in cost to $6.4 billion per year. “Fiscal responsibility demands it,” he said of reform. “Justice demands it.” Sen. Durbin asked a simple question of the sentencing laws: “Is America safer?” Answering in the negative, he said Congress is “doing everything we can to sensibly reduce the level of incarceration in this country.”

    From across the aisle, Sen. Paul kicked off the agenda with a scathing condemnation of the impact sentencing laws have on minority groups. “If I told you that one out of three African American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago,” Paul said. “One out of three African-American males are forbidden from voting because of the War on Drugs.” (His comments echoed the work of OSU Prof. Michelle Alexander in her important book, The New Jim Crow, featured on ACS BookTalk.)

  • February 21, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Thanks to scholars like Michelle Alexander, Americans and policymakers are increasingly questioning the effectiveness the nation’s system of mass incarceration and taking note of its great harm to certain populations of Americans.

    In this ACS Book Talk, Alexander, a former ACLU attorney and now a law professor at Ohio State University, explains how mass incarceration has disproportionately targeted African Americans. She wrote that 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.”

    The widespread use of solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons is also coming under greater – and long overdue – scrutiny, as noted in this ACSblog post, which highlighted a 2011 statement from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that blasted solitary confinement as “a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation” that “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

    The conservative columnist George F. Will is also weighing in on the matter, noting in a Feb. 20 piece for The Washington Post that “tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”

    Will cites federal law on torture barring “conduct ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.’” He notes what others have long known, that “severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.”

    Although solitary confinement was once considered a humane tool for rehabilitation, it is now widely considered debilitating, creating inmates who are unfit for social interaction.

    “Americans should be roused against this by decency – and prudence,” Will writes.

     

  • February 7, 2013

    Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in a recent column for The New York Times explores the incentives for police officers to dissemble before criminal juries. For starters, police officers largely can get away with it. In cities, quotas for arrests further incentivize police to lie about what actually happened during apprehensions of suspected criminals. The failed war on drugs and its laws promising federal dollars “have encouraged state and local law enforcement to boost drug arrests in order to compete for millions of dollars in funding.” As Alexander notes, defendants are justifiably afraid to raise these issues in court because what jury would believe a minority drug offender with a criminal record over a decorated police officer?

    posted by ESA

  • March 4, 2010
    BookTalk
    The New Jim Crow
    Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
    By: 
    Michelle Alexander

    By Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

    It's not easy to admit mistakes. It's difficult to acknowledge that one's world view has been seriously flawed - that you've been willfully blind to extraordinary injustice, complicit in the very forms of bigotry, social exclusion, and discrimination that you thought you opposed. But once you see the truth - once you truly reckon with it - nothing is ever the same. You can never look at the world through the same distorted lens or claim not to know. Perhaps that's why we resist knowing the truth about the devastation wrought by the mass incarceration of poor people of color. We don't want to know the truth about what's happening in ghetto communities, prisons, jails, and detention centers. We'd rather not know about that parallel universe, because if we did know all of our illusions about modern America might be shattered. We might not have any more excuses for our silence.

    I worked as a civil rights lawyer at the ACLU for several years on issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and drug policy before I finally had my awakening. Looking back, it astounds me that I could have been so blind to what is blatantly obvious to me now: Our system of mass incarceration has emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racial control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.

    As I explain in The New Jim Crow: