Category: Michelle Alexander

Holder calls for an end to mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

In a speech delivered to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder signaled that the Obama administration wants to move away from the philosophy of mass incarceration.

Holder’s analysis of the criminal justice system is reminiscent of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow except that Alexander’s bold racial claims are softened considerably.  Nonetheless, the AG acknowledged that the criminal justice system is systematically unfair to people of color.

The speech highlighted three particular initiatives: those designed to cut down on the incarceration of low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no association to major drug cartels; policies designed to expand the compassionate release of aging prisoners who pose no threat to public safety; and encouraging alternatives to incarceration.

Holder clearly understands that we are locking up far, far too many people and appears to understand that the costs go far beyond the inordinate price tag that comes with mass incarceration:

Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

I was pleased to hear the AG acknowledge that federal prosecutors are making too many federal criminal cases.  Having covered a number of federal cases, Alvin Clay, the Colomb family, Ramsey Muniz, and the IRP-6, I know how easy it can be for the federal government to make a weak case stick.  Federal prosecutors have been handed sweeping powers that translate into a 98% conviction rate.  They can’t simply indict a ham sandwich–add a little mustard, and they can get a conviction!

It will be interesting to see if Holder’s critique of mindless prison expansion impacts the immigration system in a meaningful way.

Finally, I was pleased to note that Holder has given the blessing of the Obama administration to the sentencing reforms currently enjoying bi-partisan support in Congress.

Below, I have pasted the conclusion to Holder’s groundbreaking call for a new criminal justice regime, but I urge you read the entire speech. (more…)

Another conservative decries mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

When I first became aware of the horrors of mass incarceration fifteen years ago, hardly anyone in Middle America was discussing the problem.  Things have changed.

Just last week, Michelle Alexander addressed the Biennial Convention of the American Baptist Churches in Kansas City.  American Baptists are far more progressive than Southern Baptists, to be sure, but it took some guts for denominational leaders to invite an outspoken advocate of radical reform to address a predominantly white audience.  I congratulate them.  Part of me hopes Michelle didn’t ruffle too many feathers; the other part hopes she did. (more…)

Tarantino calls America’s drug war the new slavery

By Alan Bean

Quentin Tarantino has definitely been reading Michelle Alexander.  Last month, while talking up his new movie, Django Unchained on a Canadian talk show, the controversial film director launched into a discourse on the American war on drugs:

Like most celebrities with a limited grasp of the issues, Tarantino garbles his facts a bit.  Most drug war prisoners aren’t held in private prisons and aren’t working for corporations who exploit prison labor.  This happens, to be sure, but it isn’t the typical scenario.   (more…)

Getting Organized to Fix the Justice System

by Lisa D’Souza

When I was an assistant public defender, friends and I would wonder what would happen if all the defense lawyers decided to protest the problems with the criminal justice system.  What if every criminal defense lawyer refused to represent people against whom the state sought the death penalty?  What if we agreed we would no longer represent anyone charged with “war on drugs” felonies?  The system can’t operate without defense lawyers.  Why do we let it operate with us?

Today, in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander offers another radical idea to force society to confront the problems in our criminal justice system.

I’m not sure what the best path forward is.  I am sure it is time for us to get organized.  It is time to start talking.  We all know there are serious problems with our criminal justice system.  And it is up to us to fix them.  How?

Beyond the New Jim Crow?

By Alan Bean

When a book about the criminal justice system sells 175,000 books, something is afoot.  Something big.  As this article in the New York Times observes, the initial hardcover release of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness was only 3,000 copies.  That’s a realistic sales target for this kind of book. 

Nobody who has read the book is surprised to find it on the best-seller list.  Many of the facts professor Alexander cited were familiar to criminal justice reform advocates, but she writes better than most academics and her argument transcended the normal drug war critique.  This clip from the article says it best:

Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.

Was the drug war a response to crime (as folks like Bill Stuntz and David Kennedy argue) or was the real goal to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement?


In a journal article called “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow“, professor James Forman Jr., son of the famed civil rights leader, makes two primary points.  First, Ms. Alexander doesn’t say enough about the relationship between urban crime and support for the drug war, and second, The New Jim Crow ignores the fact that civil rights leaders initially endorsed the idea of ramping up the drug war because drugs, and drug-related violence, was having a disastrous impact in poor black neighborhoods.

Forman makes some powerful arguments.  The war on drugs has always been a bipartisan disaster.  As Bill Stuntz suggested in his excellent The Decline of American Criminal Justice, liberal politicians had three choices when conservatives like Richard Nixon started demagoguing the drug war.  They could offer a progressive drug policy alternative, they could cede the drug issue to the conservatives, or they could out-tough the tough guys.  Democrats like Bill Clinton chose option number three and the drug war was transformed into a bipartisan bidding war. (more…)

Columnist offers to send you “The New Jim Crow”…free of charge

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. is inspired by Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” 

In fact, he is so inspired that he will give you a copy of the book so long as you want one and promise to read it. All you have to do is send him an email at with the subject line “I want it. I’ll read it.” At the end of the month, Pitts will draw 50 names and send an autographed copy of the book (free of charge) to those 50 individuals.

Pitts isn’t doing this as some publicity scheme. He isn’t getting reimbursed by his employer or Michelle Alexander’s publisher. He is paying for the books out of his own pocket. “I chose to do it that way,” Pitts says, “in order to impress upon you how vital I personally feel it is that you read this book.”

If you have not yet read “The New Jim Crow,” now is the time! MW

The new Jim Crow alive and thriving



I have something for you.

In June of 2010, I wrote in this space about a book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I called a “troubling and profoundly necessary” work. Alexander promulgated an explosive argument. Namely, that the so-called “War on Drugs” amounts to a war on African-American men and, more to the point, to a racial caste system nearly as restrictive, oppressive and omnipresent as Jim Crow itself.

This because, although white Americans are far and away the nation’s biggest dealers and users of illegal drugs, African Americans are far and away the ones most likely to be jailed for drug crimes. And when they are set “free” after doing their time, black men enter a legal purgatory where the right to vote, work, go to school or rent an apartment can be legally denied. It’s as if George Wallace were still standing in the schoolhouse door.

The New Jim Crow won several awards, enjoyed significant media attention, and was an apparent catalyst in the NAACP’s decision last year to call for an end to the drug war. The book was a sensation, but we need it to be more. We need it to be a movement.

As it happens and not exactly by coincidence, Alexander’s book is being reissued in paperback this week as we mark the birthday of the man who led America’s greatest mass movement for social justice. In his battle against the original Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, in a sense, did what Alexander seeks to do: pour sunlight on an onerous condition that exists just beyond the periphery of most Americans’ sight.

I want to help her do that. So here’s the deal. I’ll give you a copy of the book — autographed by the author, no less — free of charge. You don’t even have to pay for shipping. All you have to do is tell me you want it and promise me you’ll read it. (more…)

‘Michelle Alexander: Jim Crow Still Exists in America’

By Melanie Wilmoth

In a recent episode of Fresh Air on NPR, Dave Davies interviews attorney and author Michelle Alexander. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander argues that, as a result of the war on drugs, the U.S. has created a system of mass incarceration which disproportionately targets people of color.

“The war on drugs,” Alexander states, “was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.”

The “wave of punitiveness” and get-tough policies that followed the declaration of the war on drugs had an incredible impact on communities of color. Although African-Americans make up about 13% of the general population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. “In major American cities today,” Alexander points out, “more than half of working-age African-American men either are under are correctional control or are branded felons.” (more…)