By Lisa D’Souza
It’s not just journalists and academics who have been inspired by Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.” Having worked as an assistant public defender, I find the book speaks a truth that I have already witnessed. My former boss, Dawn Deaner, the elected Public Defender for Nashville and Davidson County, studied the data and found that although African-Americans constitute 20% of the population in Davidson County, Tennessee, 60% of the people in Davidson County jails are black. Even more shocking, 80% of the children held in jail waiting to be tried as adults are African-American.
I echo Ms. Deaner’s words in an editorial published in The Tennessean today, “Everyone who cares about equality and fairness in our criminal justice system owes it to themselves to read her book, and to make their own evaluation of how and why 1 in 3 young African-American men is currently in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.”
Disproportional incarceration emerges as a civil-rights issue
As Nashville’s public defender, I applaud Jim Todd’s Jan. 18 article about the unfair sentences meted out under Tennessee’s Drug Free School Zone Act (DFSZA), and his call for a legislative remedy to that problem.
I write, however, to shine a light on another disparity created by the Act that goes beyond the sentences imposed, and represents a much more serious inequity permeating our American criminal justice system — the mass incarceration and criminalization of minority individuals.
In 2010, 73 percent of adults charged in Nashville with violating the Drug Free School Zone Act were African-American, even though African-Americans represented only 20 percent of Nashville’s adult population that year, according to U.S. Census data. These disproportionate numbers are even more troubling when you realize they are not limited to DFSZA arrests. On an average day in 2010, the Davidson County Jail held an adult inmate population that was 61 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic, and 33 percent Caucasian — a mixture wildly different than our city’s adult population that year (roughly 20 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic and 70 percent Caucasian). The numbers are even more disparate for our children. In December 2011, 80 percent of juveniles held in Nashville’s jail pending trial as adults were African-American.
Beyond statistics, a trip to the A.A. Birch Criminal Court Building reveals the same reality — the faces of our city’s criminal defendants are predominantly faces of color, regardless of whether they are charged with minor offenses or serious felonies. Unfortunately, Nashville is not alone in this racial disparity, as civil-rights advocate Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In the book, Alexander explains how — primarily as a result of American’s “war on drugs” — minorities have come to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system, even though they are not committing a higher share of crime. She goes on to make a case for how a wide variety of American laws, institutions and practices — ranging from racial profiling to biased sentencing policies, political disenfranchisement and legalized discrimination — trap African-Americans in a virtual (and often literal) cage.