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Michelle Alexander

Miller Center l Flickr Creative Commons

Given the recent verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the media has increasingly focused on the dynamic role of race in the criminal justice system. Criminal justice advocates, from the ACLU to the W. Haywood Burns Institute, have long highlighted the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has had on communities of color within California. CJCJ has also reported on the stark racial disparity for all drug arrests in San Francisco, especially among young people. The report found, More than half of all youth drug felonies involved African Americans, who constitute 9% of the city’s youth; and one-third Latino males, who comprise 11% of the city’s youth.” This should give pause to those who assume the issue of race in our criminal justice system is reserved for far-off, Sanford, Florida.

In this context, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow takes on renewed relevance for those concerned with a more humane and effective system of criminal justice. Alexander’s central thesis is that the mass incarceration of racial minorities is a political means of social control and exclusion, in an age when many American self-identify as racially tolerant. Just as Jim Crow laws meant to segregate and disenfranchise African Americans, Alexander believes mass incarceration is a new caste system thinly veiled by the cloak of colorblindness”.

For example, individuals with criminal convictions, many for non-violent, drug related offenses must struggle to overcome significant challenges in obtaining employment and housing. Many are also excluded from the hallmarks of American civic life, including voting. Those critical of the verdict in the Zimmermann trial, highlight the absence of African American men on the jury. The absence is less shocking when one considers an analysis that finds felony exclusion statutes reduce jury service for African American men by thirty percent.

What can concerned individuals do to bring real change to the systemic overreliance on incarceration, which has a disproportionate impact on Americans of color? In California, there are a number of state criminal justice bills that require support when the legislature returns from recess in early August. These bills address needs for those formerly incarcerated, as relates to employment discrimination (AB 218), voting rights (AB 149), and medical coverage (AB 720). Other bills offer sentencing reform for drug possession (AB 649) and limit the school-to-prison pipeline (AB 420).

We must also look to the excellent groups within California that join effective policy advocacy with grassroots organizing within communities most affected by the over reliance on incarceration such as All of Us or None, the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, and Fathers and Families of San Joaquin. Alexander commends those groups which draw on the unique perspective of the formerly incarcerated. Reform that ignores these voices will be ineffective and too incremental for the broader change necessary.