Category Archives: Michelle Alexander

The Newest Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander

Recent criminal justice reforms contain the seeds of a frightening system of “e-carceration.”

By Michelle Alexander  Opinion Columnist   New York Times

 

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CreditCreditIllustration by Yoshi Sodeoka; Photographs by Juanmonino and SensorSpot/E+, via Getty Images

In the midterms, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to legalize marijuana, Florida restored the vote to over 1.4 million people with felony convictions, and Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials. These are the latest examples of the astonishing progress that has been made in the last several years on a wide range of criminal justice issues. Since 2010, when I published “The New Jim Crow” — which argued that a system of legal discrimination and segregation had been born again in this country because of the war on drugs and mass incarceration — there have been significant changes to drug policy, sentencing and re-entry, including “ban the box” initiatives aimed at eliminating barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people.

This progress is unquestionably good news, but there are warning signs blinking brightly. Many of the current reform efforts contain the seeds of the next generation of racial and social control, a system of “e-carceration” that may prove more dangerous and more difficult to challenge than the one we hope to leave behind.

Bail reform is a case in point. Thanks in part to new laws and policies — as well as actions like the mass bailout of inmates in New York City jails that’s underway — the unconscionable practice of cash bail is finally coming to an end. In August, California became the first state to decide to get rid of its cash bail system; last year, New Jersey virtually eliminated the use of money bonds.

But what’s taking the place of cash bail may prove even worse in the long run. In California, a presumption of detention will effectively replace eligibility for immediate release when the new law takes effect in October 2019. And increasingly, computer algorithms are helping to determine who should be caged and who should be set “free.” Freedom — even when it’s granted, it turns out — isn’t really free.

Under new policies in California, New Jersey, New York and beyond, “risk assessment” algorithms recommend to judges whether a person who’s been arrested should be released. These advanced mathematical models — or “weapons of math destruction” as data scientist Cathy O’Neil calls them — appear colorblind on the surface but they are based on factors that are not only highly correlated with race and class, but are also significantly influenced by pervasive bias in the criminal justice system.

As O’Neil explains, “It’s tempting to believe that computers will be neutral and objective, but algorithms are nothing more than opinions embedded in mathematics.”

Challenging these biased algorithms may be more difficult than challenging discrimination by the police, prosecutors and judges. Many algorithms are fiercely guarded corporate secrets. Those that are transparent — you can actually read the code — lack a public audit so it’s impossible to know how much more often they fail for people of color.

Even if you’re lucky enough to be set “free” from a brick-and-mortar jail thanks to a computer algorithm, an expensive monitoring device likely will be shackled to your ankle — a GPS tracking device provided by a private company that may charge you around $300 per month, an involuntary leasing fee. Your permitted zones of movement may make it difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, care for your kids or visit family members. You’re effectively sentenced to an open-air digital prison, one that may not extend beyond your house, your block or your neighborhood. One false step (or one malfunction of the GPS tracking device) will bring cops to your front door, your workplace, or wherever they find you and snatch you right back to jail.

Who benefits from this? Private corporations. According to a report released last month by the Center for Media Justice, four large corporations — including the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies — have most of the private contracts to provide electronic monitoring for people on parole in some 30 states, giving them a combined annual revenue of more than $200 million just for e-monitoring. Companies that earned millions on contracts to run or serve prisons have, in an era of prison restructuring, begun to shift their business model to add electronic surveillance and monitoring of the same population. Even if old-fashioned prisons fade away, the profit margins of these companies will widen so long as growing numbers of people find themselves subject to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring and control.

 

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Join us Nov. 15 in Northboro with Sen. Jamie Eldridge

Ending Mass Incarceration, part of "The New Jim Crow" in Massachusetts, is part of criminal justice reform, led by State Sen. Stan Rosenburg, D Amherst. We must work together in Mass. to reform our criminal justice system and end the systematic incarceration of black, brown, poor, mentally ill and addicted people.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, is a progressive senator who constantly advocates for the underprivileged, to protect the environment and for civil liberty.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and Rebecca Miller, aide to Rep. Tom Sannicandro, D-Ashland, will preview upcoming legislation for the 2015 legislative session and give inside information on how to connect with and influence our state legislators.

The meeting gets rolling at 10:45 am with registration and coffee. The program starts promptly at 11 am and ends at 1 pm. Light refreshments served. Free. Handicapped accessible. Plenty of parking. If you need a lift from public transit – Green Line to MetroWest Transit, please contact susan . tordella at g mail . com.

Register here: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/end-mass-incarceration-training-tickets-13678989225

Bring friends who are outraged by the injustice of mass incarceration. Please share this notice with your networks.

We are building an ecumenical

statewide grassroots network to influence state legislators to pass a series of bills to return justice for all to Massachusetts, from revising pre-trial services to ending mandatory minimum sentencing.

Join a chorus of statewide advocacy groups working on this issue. We are stronger with many voices singing together loudly in many harmonies.

New York Times editorial board condemns mass incarceration

End Mass Incarceration Now

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/opinion/sunday/end-mass-incarceration-now.html?_r=0

For more than a decade, researchers across multiple disciplines have been issuing reports on the widespread societal and economic damage caused by America’s now-40-year experiment in locking up vast numbers of its citizens. If there is any remaining disagreement about the destructiveness of this experiment, it mirrors the so-called debate over climate change.

In both cases, overwhelming evidence shows a crisis that threatens society as a whole. In both cases, those who study the problem have called for immediate correction.

Several recent reports provide some of the most comprehensive and compelling proof yet that the United States “has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” and that mass incarceration itself is “a source of injustice.”

That is the central conclusion of a two-year, 444-page study prepared by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the Justice Department and others. The report highlights many well-known statistics: Since the early 1970s, the nation’s prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million, making it the world’s biggest. That is five to 10 times the incarceration rate in other democracies.

On closer inspection the numbers only get worse. More than half of state prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and one of every nine, or about 159,000 people, are serving life sentences — nearly a third of them without the possibility of parole.

While politicians were responding initially to higher crime rates in the late 1960s, this “historically unprecedented” growth is primarily the result of harsher sentencing that continued long after crime began to fall. These include lengthy mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses that became popular in the 1980s, and “three strikes” laws that have put people away for life for stealing a pair of socks.

And even though the political climate has shifted in recent years, many politicians continue to fear appearing to be “soft on crime,” even when there is no evidence that imprisoning more people has reduced crime by more than a small amount.

Meanwhile, much of the world watches in disbelief. A report by Human Rights Watch notes that while prison should generally be a last resort, in the United States “it has been treated as the medicine that cures all ills,” and that “in its embrace of incarceration, the country seems to have forgotten just how severe a punishment it is.”

The severity is evident in the devastation wrought on America’s poorest and least educated, destroying neighborhoods and families. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million. Since race and poverty overlap so significantly, the weight of our criminal justice experiment continues to fall overwhelmingly on communities of color, and particularly on young black men.

After prison, people are sent back to the impoverished places they came from, but are blocked from re-entering society. Often they cannot vote, get jobs, or receive public benefits like subsidized housing — all of which would improve their odds of staying out of trouble. This web of collateral consequences has created what the National Academy of Sciences report calls “a highly distinct political and legal universe for a large segment of the U.S. population.”

All of this has come at an astounding economic cost, as tallied by a report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project — $80 billion a year in direct corrections expenses alone, and more than a quarter-trillion dollars when factoring in police, judicial and legal services.

Many of the solutions to this crisis are clear, even if the political path to them often is not: Reduce sentence lengths substantially. Provide more opportunities for rehabilitation inside prison. Remove the barriers that keep people from rejoining society after they are released from prison. Use alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders, drug addicts and the mentally ill. Release elderly or ill prisoners, who are the least likely to re-offend. And since more than 95 percent of inmates are eventually released, rate prisons on their success in keeping former inmates from returning — which as many as two-thirds currently do. Some states have already taken smart and effective steps in these directions, but there is a long way to go.

The insanity of the situation is plain to people across the political spectrum, from Attorney GeneralEric Holder Jr. to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who agree on the urgent need for change. The research is in, and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.

See you in the Beacon Hill lobby Tuesday June 10

The term “lobbyist” originated in Massachusetts when people who wanted to influence legislators waited in the “lobby” outside of the Senate and House chambers.

On Tuesday, June 10, from 10 am to 3 pm, a group of activists will be hanging around the Statehouse lobbies, elevators and stairwells to ask, “Do you work here?”

If the answer is “yes,” we want to know:

For which legislator do you work?

Did your office receive the “New Jim Crow” on April 30 when volunteers delivered a copy of the landmark book by Michelle Alexander to every member of the Mass. House and Senate?

Did s/he read it? Did the legislator read it?

What did you think of it?

Did you know you can view videos of Michelle Alexander on you tube?

5 minute Colbert interview

23 minute TedX Talk

52 minute address to Riverside Church

Does the legislator know about the bipartisan Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform caucus led by Rep. Sannicandro and Sen. Eldridge?

Will anyone from the legislator’s office be attending the June 24 briefing in Room 437 of the Statehouse, 11:30 am to 1 pm, featuring a speaker who recovered from drug addiction? EMIT, End Mass Incarceration Together, a Unitarian Universalist Task force of UU Mass Action, provides a free lunch. Hope to see you there.

Contact me if you want to join us in our informal lobbying on June 10. susan . tordella @ g mail . c o m   978-772-3930. Come for as much time as you can spare. We’ll be going in pairs.