Friday, April 19, 2013

"We the People"

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that America’s current system of mass incarceration has replaced the Jim Crow laws that came before it, but are nevertheless just as damaging in some ways. While the details of how this system oppresses communities of color are overwhelming, what is even more terrifying is the institutional inertia that perpetuates the system and prevents us from changing it. We have erected an entire private prison industry in order to cope with the large number of those imprisoned, we have police departments that rely on the seizure of drug-related assets/money for funding, we have many industries that sell equipment to prisons, and a variety of other institutionalized interest groups. Each of these groups stands to lose enormous amounts of money should we end the drug war, which Alexander argues is essential to overturning the mass incarceration paradigm.  

Unfortunately, most Americans have been socialized/conditioned into believing that our system of mass incarceration is normal. However, I think people are beginning to question the status quo more. When the White House began an initiative called “We the People” where people could sign petitions on issues they wanted the administration to respond to, marijuana legalization was the first petition to gain the requisite amount of signatures to get a response from the White House. In fact, at almost every event where President Obama has held forums that solicit questions from the public through the Internet, marijuana legalization and questions related to the drug war continually top the list of most asked questions. Yet each time that these questions come up, Obama either ignores the questions altogether or provides a simplistic defense of why we should not end the drug war without defending the underlying philosophy of imprisoning millions of Americans.

Given this institutional inertia, it is encouraging that 2 states (Washington and Colorado) have pushed back against the philosophy of the drug war. Hopefully, other states will see the benefits of such a policy and we can begin to reverse a policy that has destroyed so many lives.   

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