The New Jim Crow

Jarvious Cotton is not allowed to vote. His family has been denied the right to participate in democracy for at least 5 generations. His great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the KKK for attempting to vote. His grandfather did not vote because of the threats by the Klan. His father was prevented by poll taxes and literacy tests. Now Jarvious cannot vote because he is a felon on parole.1 Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow tells this story and many others showing that the felony conviction and the criminal justice are creating a subclass of citizens legally denied basic rights and discriminated against in employment, housing, education and public benefits—much like the old Jim Crow laws.

Tough on Crime, Tough on Minorities

For decades politicians have been campaigning on the platform of being “Tough on Crime”, each one trying to show that they were tougher than their opponent. This lead to huge numbers of incomprehensible laws, absurdly harsh prison sentences, and aggressive prosecutors who operate with no regard for truth or justice. It started as “law and order” rhetoric in the 1950s in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. When politicians talked of “law and order” their white constituents knew they meant oppression of African Americans and other minorities. Richard Nixon’s campaign included a TV ad with images of scary, bloody violence and a promise from Nixon to “restore order in the United States.” When Nixon saw the ad, he gleefully said that it “hits it right on the nose. It’s all about those damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”2 Each president after Nixon tried to show they were tougher on crime than their predecessor. President Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies did more to increase the prison population than any other president3. Not only did Clinton put more citizens in prison but he passed laws which ensure those who had served the harsh sentences would be denied housing4 and welfare5, the programs created to serve disadvantaged citizens.

With all the new laws, resources and support, law enforcement began targeting minorities and poor neighborhoods. They did not do it because African American or minorities are more likely to commit crimes—studies show that all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates6. Law enforcement targets poor and minorities because it’s easy and encouraged. Blacks are no more likely to use drugs than whites but if blacks are the ones who are stopped and search than it guarantees our prisons will be filled with black people which was the intention of the politicians. Despite all the statistics the supreme court has ruled that racial profiling, sentencing disparities and jury selection is constitutional unless it can be proven that race was the motivation. Disproportionate statistics are not enough to prove racial prejudice. Nationwide the prison population of drug offenders is about 3/4 black or Latins7. In some states 80-90% of drug offenders sent to prison are African American8. From my observations of Lompoc about 50% are Latino, 15% black, 15% Asian and 20% white. It being a federal prison camp the make up will be much different than a state prison or higher security prison but the disparity of the races represented here to the general population of California is obvious.

The Scarlet Letter

Once someone is release from prison their lifetime sentence of living with a felony conviction begins. The shame and stigma are tough but the legal discrimination makes returning to society extremely difficult. Not only do they need to “check the box” when submitting job applications but many professional licenses are automatically revoked forcing felons into new careers they have limited experience in. Many felons on probation are required to maintain legitimate employment or face being sent back to prison. For those able to secure employment they almost always see garnishments placed on their paychecks for fees, fines, and restitution. These garnishments come from any number of government agencies and sometimes can consume up to 100% of a probationer’s paycheck9.

In addition to struggling to find employment, ex-offenders struggle to find housing because landlords public and private can and often are required to deny housing to felons. Even if a family member with a record of drug convictions visits someone in public housing it can cause them to be evicted10. American is one of the few countries of the world that prevents former criminals from voting. Most countries in Europe allow criminals to vote while they are incarcerated11. Most states in the US deny prisoners the right to vote while they are incarcerated and have to finish years of probation after they are released before their voting rights are restored. A few states never restore voting rights for felons unless the governor grants clemency12.

Other consequences

When anyone is sent to prison, they are not the only ones doing time. The family they are forced to leave often have a harder time because they are denied the connection with their loved one and any financial support they would have provided. Those that do not qualify for a public defender often use all their saving paying a private attorney. The financial strain is extended because inmates need money in their commissary fund to pay for the stamps, phone or computer time necessary to communicate with their family. 80% of marriage do not last through the strain of incarceration. The result is that children, spouses and whole communities become victims of the legal system. I’ve met many inmates here who have been divorced since they surrendered, and the effects are devastating.


Unfortunately, Michelle Alexander did not offer many solutions to fix the problem of mass incarceration in her book. I offered a few in my last post We have lost the war on drugs. She did say that any solution cannot simply address the problem of mass incarceration without addressing the systemic racism that exists in our country. If we were able to keep blacks and other minorities from being arrested and incarcerated without addressing the underlining racial issues another system of oppression would replace mass incarceration that we would not be able to predict. Genuine care and compassion for every human being in our nation must be the motivations for reforms. I know we cannot expect help to come from our law makers and other politicians. President Obama expanded many of the programs that fueled the drug war and mass incarceration13 in an effort to create jobs and economic stimulus14. Trump and Biden both talked about being “tough on crime” and now you know what that actually means. Right now 50% of people in the US are impacted by the legal system by have one or more loved one in prison at some point in their life. So many people are affected that change can come as long as they do not stay silent. Politicians will not make change because they think it’s the right thing to do. They will make changes if they people demand it. We need to change how to measure success in the legal system. Right now politicians and prosecutors are rewarded by the number of convictions and prisoners they create. These convictions should be badge of shame instead of honor. Each conviction represents wasted years, money, victimized families and communities. Prisoners need to be seen as humans and not merely criminals.

1: Jarvious Cotton from Cotton v. Fordice 157 F.3d 388 (5th Cir. 1998), which held that Mississippi denying felons the right to vote was Not racially discriminatory. Like many states Mississippi denies parolees the right to vote. See also Johnson v. Governor of Fla (2005 5th Cir.)
2: See Philip A. Klinker and Rovers M. Smith, The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equity in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 292.
3: Justice Policy Institute, “Clinton Crime Agenda Ignores Proven Methods for Reducing Crime,” Apr. 4, 2008.
4: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Meeting the Challenge: Public Housing Authorities Respond to the “One Strike and You’re Out” Initiative, Sept 1997, v.
6: See, e.g., U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Summary of Findings from the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, NHSDA series H-13, DHHS pub. no. SMA 01-3549 (Rockville, MD:2001), reporting that 6.4 percent of whites, 6.4 percent of blacks, and 5.3 percent of Hispanics were current users of illegal drugs in 2000; Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, NHSDA series H-22, DHHS pub. no. SMA 03-3836 (2003), revealing nearly identical rates of illegal drug use among whites and blacks, only a single percentage point between them; and Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, NSDUH series H-34, DHHS pub. no. SMA 08-4343 (2007), showing essentially the same finding. See also Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, A 25-Year Quagmire: The “War on Drugs” and Its Impact on American Society (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2007), 19, citing a study suggesting that African Americans have only slightly higher rates of illegal drug use than whites.
7: Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, Schools and Prisons: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2004), 3.
8: Human Rights Watch, Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, HRW Reports, vol. 12, no. 2 (May 2000).
9: “Out of Prison and Deep in Debt,” editorial, New York Times, Oct. 6, 2007.
10: Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker, 535 U.S. 125 (2002).
11: Laleh Ispahani, Out of Step with the World: An Analysis of Felony Disenfranchisement in the U.S. and Other Democracies (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2006), 4.
12: Ryan S. King, Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2008).
13: Obama promised to increase Byrne funds when running for president. See David Hunt, “Obama Fields Questions on Jacksonville Crime,” Florida-Times Union, Sept. 22, 2008. Once elected, he made good on his promise, drastically increasing funding for the drug war. See “Federal Budget: Economic Stimulus Bill Stimulates Drug War, Too,” Drug War Chronicle, no. 573 (Feb. 20, 2009); Michelle Alexander, “Obama’s Drug War,” The Nation, Dec. 9, 2010 (Noting that the 2009 economic stimulus package included a twelvefold increase in financing for Byrne programs).
14: See Charles Blow, “Smoke and Horrors,” New York Times, Oct. 22, 2010

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lars

    It has always troubled me that it is legal to deny any American the right to vote. There is no logical defense for the policy.

    Here in Canada prisoners can and do vote while serving time.

  2. Norma

    This Information about the limits a felony puts on a person. David, though white not black, is still subject to the rules. I believe he won’t be able to get a passport and will NOT be a missionary in Romania.

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