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Inside Criminal Justice

Commentary

‘What’s Goin’ On?’

February 16, 2016 07:55:23 am

Photo by David Shankbone via Flickr

Marvin Gaye’s lament from 1971 still resonates today.

Change his lyrics from “war is not the answer” to “prison’s not the answer” and the song sums up my feelings about Black History Month 2016.

Forcefully defined as the "New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander in her best-selling book of the same name, mass incarceration is the next frontier in the struggle for full racial justice and equality.

Over the past 40 years, millions of men and women of color have churned in and out of prison. The numbers are benumbing, but they bear repetition: 65 million Americans have criminal records.  That is one out of every four adults.

And while people of color make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 60 percent of the country’s prison population. African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated as whites.

The poor have borne the brunt of this debacle. It is estimated that an astonishing 60 percent of middle-aged African-American men without a high school degree have served time in prison.

By now, readers of The Crime Report are familiar with the litany of collateral consequences that flow from a criminal conviction. Millions have been disenfranchised, shut out from exercising their democratic rights. The unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated one year after release hovers around 60 percent. We can be excluded from public housing, student loans, and eligibility for all kinds of licenses and government benefits.

The American Bar Association has called it a form of “Internal Exile.”  Just like the Black Codes and the Jim Crow laws of the past, the "war on crime" and the "war on drugs" have had the effect, if not the explicit intention, of creating and sustaining a new caste system in 21st Century America.

The biggest challenge facing the criminal justice reform movement today is that, unlike the old Jim Crow, these injustices have not yet gripped the conscience of America. When it comes to policing and the criminal justice system, black and white Americans live in two different realities.

For me, one of the sharpest and most painful reminders of this disconnect happened on July 14, 2013.  I happened to be in Union Square in New York City when George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin was announced.  A few black people started chanting “We are Trayvon Martin!” and the crowd grew to a few hundred in less than an hour.   It was an electrifying moment of solidarity and passion.  But when I went across the street to a coffee shop to get some water, I entered a space where the mostly white patrons seemed to have no idea what was going on right outside.

For them, it was business as usual.

It is true that a growing number of white Americans support an end to mass incarceration, including some of the folks who want to be our next president.  But public opinion surveys reveal a wide and persistent racial gap. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 73 percent of blacks think reforming the criminal justice system should be a “top public priority” compared to only 39 percent of whites.

In a CBS News Poll taken after the grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, 82 percent of blacks were “disappointed or angry” compared to only 33 percent of whites. It is because of this gap that “Black Lives Matter” has become our clarion call.

White America was aroused by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when television news reports brought the beatings, attack dogs and water cannons into their living rooms. Today, handheld videos of acts of police brutality and killings going viral on the internet are beginning to play a similar role.

But the struggle to end the new Jim Crow faces a hurdle that the Civil Rights Movement did not: the stigma of a criminal conviction. The stigma puts those of us who have been through the system on the outer rim of American society. We populate a new kind of underclass as the status of “ex-offender” serves as an acceptable surrogate for race- and class-based discrimination.

My goal in founding JustLeadershipUSA is to tear the veil away from the devastation our criminal justice system has wreaked on America so that all people of good will can unite to bring it down.

By giving a voice to formerly incarcerated people, their families and their communities, we are trying to arouse the conscience of the nation as our forbearers did a generation ago. The reality of mass incarceration has been hidden from most Americans for too long. What’s going on in our nation’s prisons is literally and figuratively kept under wraps, behind thick walls and barbed wire.

Bringing what’s going on into the light will make it possible for all Americans to see that ending the new Jim Crow is in all of our interests.

It is a cruel, wasteful and counterproductive system that tarnishes our country’s most basic values and ideals.

Glenn E. Martin is the Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030. He a national leader and criminal justice reform advocate who spent six years in New York State prisons.  Glenn is on Twitter @glennEmartin . He welcomes comments from readers.

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