Author and Legal Scholar, Michelle Alexander, Talks About The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration (Part 2)

There was no need for this. We did not need to choose this path. We didn't need to go down this road. There was absolutely no good reason for our nation to abandon the path that we were on at the time that Martin Luther King Jr passed away.

Abandon the poor peoples movement. Abandon the effort to create good schools in every community, and jobs, and economic investment in poor communities. No, we abandoned that and instead declared a war on drugs and embarked upon the greatest expansion of a prison system in world history.

Kathleen Wells: So what is the motivation? What is the reason? Why are they targeting black communities, neighborhoods?

Michelle Alexander: Well, first of all, they could never could away with it, if they tried to do it in middle or upper-middle class white communities. If the drug war was waged on college campuses and universities and upper-middle class white communities, the way it's being waged in the 'hood, it would have ended 30 years ago -- it would have ended before it began.

But again to understand why this is happening, I think you have to go back again to the origin. The drug war is traceable to a deliberate effort to exploit our nation's racial divisions and anxiety through this "get tough" rhetoric. And once the war was declared, law enforcement was given financial incentives to wage it.

Many people don't realize that when the drug war was first declared, many law enforcement folks resisted the idea of the drug war. Some police chiefs were arguing, "Why should we be focusing our time and energy on petty drug crimes when there are far more serious crimes going on in these communities that folks are worried about -- shouldn't we be focusing our energy and resources on murder, rape, robbery, the more serious crimes than rounding people up for minor drug offenses?"

Well, the Reagan Administration overcame these initial objections by effectively granting bribes to state and local law enforcement agencies. They said, "We'll give you cash, millions of dollars, as well as a steady supply of military equipment if you agree to wage this war. And you'll be rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of drug arrests you make. You don't get rewarded in cash for bringing down the most violent offenders or the drug kingpins, no, we're going to reward you in cash for the sheer numbers of people who are rounded up and swept in."

And soon law enforcement agencies all over the country were competing with each other for this federal funding. And as federal funding started flowing, once the faucet was turned on and federal funding started flowing to state and local law enforcement agencies all over the country, it changed the way policing happened in the United States. The drug war became institutionalized, deeply entrenched in law enforcement agencies all across the country.

At the same time that the drug war was revving up, our media became saturated with images of black and brown drug offenders. So blackness and drug crime became firmly associated in our collective conscious and unconscious. And law enforcement officials were not immune to this. In the mid 1990s, there was a survey conducted asking respondents, "Close your eyes for a minute and imagine a drug offender, a drug criminal." Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured an African-American, only five percent pictured someone of any other race or ethnicity.

So in our public consciousness, we associate drug crime with black folks -- and law enforcement is no exception. And so when they go looking for drug crimes, they go looking in the 'hood, not only because it's easier and because they can get away with it there, but because it's easy to rationalize since people associate drug crimes with African-Americans even though, as I've said, all the empirical evidence, all the data suggest, that people of color aren't actually any more likely to commit drug crimes than whites.

Kathleen Wells: Let's explore how the criminal justice system actually operates; how it works -- starting with police targeting poor black neighborhoods to young black men being released back into society after being convicted and branded as felons. Talk to me about that process, the system, and all the things that happen in between.

Michelle Alexander: Well, the first stage is the roundup -- it's the sweeping of people into the criminal justice system and that happens in many urban areas through stop and frisk operations. It happens through highway drug interdiction operations, where cars are stopped and searched for drugs. It happens in some communities with police sweep for drugs or the sweeps of housing projects for drugs.

Also, the US Supreme Court has made it possible now by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, for the police to stop and search virtually anyone for drugs as long as they get "consent". Now what does this mean? Well, if a police officer confronts you on the street and says, "You put your hands in the air and turn around" and you do so, that's interpreted as consent. If the police officer confronts you and says, "May I search your bag? May I search your jacket? Can I talk to you for a minute?" and you comply, you say, "Yes" that's interpreted as consent. Almost no one refuses the police when confronted on the street or in a train or plane or train station. When you're confronted by the police, very few -- either the foolish or the very brave -- will refuse consent when confronted by the police.

The Supreme Court has said, "You no longer need reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop, interrogate, and search someone as long as you can get some kind of consent from them." And so in this way, the police are now free to roam through neighborhoods and stop cars, as long as they can find a minor traffic violation; extremely minor, like not tracking properly between your lanes, or failing to use your turn signal properly. As long as they can come up with some excuse, some pretext, for pulling someone over, you can then begin a fishing expedition for drugs.

The reality is that if you look for drugs in any community, you will find them -- when the police go looking for drugs, and only looking for drugs in one community, they're going to find them in that community and not in others. So, the war on drugs being concentrated in poor communities of color, the overwhelming majority of the people who are arrested, who are swept up, are black and brown, because it's those communities that have been targeted.

Once you're swept into the system, your hopes of ever being truly free from it are very, very slim. If you are poor, as more than 80% of those who have been swept into the system are -- too poor to be able to afford your own attorney, you'll be appointed one. And that public defender or that court appointed attorney will likely have dozens, if not more than a hundred other cases, and the odds of that attorney spending any significant time for you before your hearing or before your trial, to gather evidence or question witnesses or do any of the kind of basic preliminaries that would be necessary for adequate representation, are very slim.

People have a false understanding of what our legal system is like, how it works/operates, from shows like Law and Order, which suggest that lawyers appear on demand and do a tremendous amount of investigation and background research. That they work on the behalf of individual clients in even the most routine cases - this is not true. Thousands of people go to jail, go to prison, every year without even meeting with an attorney. And they are often forced to make extremely difficult decisions with very little information or counsel, and threatened with harsh mandatory minimum sentences, which result in many innocent people pleading guilty because they are afraid of doing ten years in prison if the jury believes the police officer's word over theirs at the trial.

Prosecutors frequently overcharge, load up charges on individual defendants, knowing that three strikes laws and harsh mandatory minimum sentences will force people to plea bargain, and essentially convict themselves because they're terrified of doing a life sentence for a relatively minor crime. And even those who are quote-unquote "lucky" enough to just get probation or a year in jail find that when they're released that their punishment has only just begun, because they are now faced with a lifetime of discrimination, scorn, and social exclusion, as that "F," the felony, that criminal record follows them for the rest of their lives.

Kathleen Wells: Like a scarlet letter.

Michelle Alexander: Absolutely. So then they're in the parallel social universe. And many find themselves cycling in and out of jail for the rest of their lives or barely surviving, working in the shadow economy for next to nothing, just struggling to get by.

Part 1 of my Alexander interview can be seen here