The Cycle | February 22, 2013
>>> it's black history month and i'd rather not celebrate looking at the past but by trying to grapple with the big problems facing the black community today so i called in one of my favorite thinkers, michelle alexander , the brilliant author of "the new jim crow ." how are you, professor?
>> fine. thank you for having me here.
>> great. i think the war on drugs creates the pipeline, it turns us in to felons and can't get a job, can't be in public housing . it sort of ruins your life, criminalizing people who make youthful mistakes, often nonviolent with marijuana and it becomes a permanent mistake in their life. it creates a lot of hopelessness in the young black men, especially. do you think, obviously, you think that's one of the greatest problems in our community.
>> absolutely. you know, here we are in black history month when, you know, some americans pause if only briefly to consider our racial history and our racial present and the possibilities for our collective future and it's 50 years after the march on washington . it's 150 years after the emancipation proclamation . and yet there are more african-american dults under control and on probation or parole enslaved in 1850 , decade before the civil war began. and in some major urban areas more than half of working age african-american men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives in employment and housing and access to education and public benefits and it's been the war on drugs . and the get tough movement that has quintupled our prison population and astonishingly short period of time. it's a drug war that's waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color even though studies consistently shown for decades that contrary to popular belief people of color no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. but nonetheless, in, you know, many states, african- americans have constituted 80% to 90% of those sent to prison for drug offenses. even though people of all colors are roughly equally likely to use and sell drugs in their lifetime.
>> i mean, that last point is important. i can hear people saying if you can't do the time, don't do the crime. but blacks and white use and sell drugs at almost equal rates and we are overprosecuted and overconvicted, oversentenced for these crimes. your book shined a huge light on this. opened a lot of peoples' eyes but are we any closer to reforming this drug prohibition and damaging the country?
>> i think we are inching closer. i think there's a growing awareness that the war on drugs has been abysmal failure. we have spent $1 trillion waging the drug war since it began. and yet, rates of drug addiction and drug abuse remain largely unchanged. the sale price of, you know, most illegal drugs on the street are about the same or lower when the war on drugs began. what do we have to show for this war? not much more than millions of lives destroyed, families decimated and millions of people who are now saddled with criminal records for the rest of their lives that will bar them access to employment and housing and education. we've created a vast new undercast, second class status of millions of americans today for what? for possessing or using illegal substances . you know, we supposedly criminalized drugs because we're so concerned about the harm that these substances cause people and then we end up inflicting vastly more harm than the substances themselves are likely to cause by locking people in cages and then relegating them to a permanent second class status.
>> what's the solution? it can't just be as simple as legalizing drugs, right?
>> well, i think ending the war on drugs once and for all would be a major leap forward. if we're serious about ending mass incarceration, we have got to end the war on drugs . and although the obama administration has definitely engaged in a rhetorical shift on the drug war , you know, the drug czar said we shouldn't call it a war on drugs anymore. we ought not be as war with our own people. we have yet to see a major shift in policy. and, you know, i think that the polling data shows that the american public now, you know, understands that we should be investing in drug prevention and drug treatment rather than in massive incarceration and that the drug war has been an abysmal failure. this won't end mass incarceration. we are going to have to end the harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed for virtually all types of crimes and we're going to have end the forms of discrimination of people released from prison and guarantee that once you have been branded a criminal or felon you are unlikely to be able to survive in the economy and cycle in and out for many years or perhaps the rest of your life.
>> yeah. michelle, i mean, you raise that point of what happens when people get out of jail. if we lived where there's universal access to voting for all convicted felons released, what do you think the political debate would look like then? would it be significantly different?
>> well, i think, you know, it would be different if, you know, all those who have been branded felons actually had, you know, the right to vote. you know? it's interesting because in other western democracies, not only do people who have been branded criminals or felons have the right to vote, but in many western democracies, prisoner vs the right to vote and voting drives in prison. but here in america, we seem to take the idea of democracy a little less seriously and we not only deny the right to vote people in prison in 48 states but strip them of their voting rights for a period of years or some states the rest of their lives.
>> professor michelle alexander , author, thank you for being here.
>> thank you. thank you again.
>>> straight ahead, ladies and gentlemen , place your bets. a check on the oscar front runners and long shots with our favorite mysterious odds maker crunching the numbers of a secret location. [ fishing rod casting