THE legal scholar Derrick A. Bell foresaw that mass incarceration, like earlier systems of racial control, would continue to exist as long as it served the perceived interests of white elites.
Thirty years of civil rights litigation and advocacy have failed to slow the pace of a racially biased drug war or to prevent the emergence of a penal system of astonishing size. Yet a few short years of tight state budgets have inspired former “get tough” true believers to suddenly denounce the costs of imprisonment. “We’re wasting tax dollars on prisons,” they say. “It’s time to shift course.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, shocked many earlier this year when he co-wrote an essay for The Washington Post calling on “conservative legislators to lead the way in addressing an issue often considered off-limits to reform: prisons.”
Republican governors had already been sounding the same note. As California was careering toward bankruptcy last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lamented that more money was being spent on prisons than on education. Priorities “have become out of whack over the years,” he said. “What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?” Another Republican governor, John R. Kasich of Ohio, recently announced support for reducing penalties for nonviolent drug offenders as part of an effort to slash the size of the state’s prison population.
A majority of those swept into our nation’s prison system are poor people of color, but the sudden shift away from the “get tough” rhetoric that has dominated the national discourse on crime has not been inspired by a surge in concern about the devastating human toll of mass incarceration. Instead, as Professor Bell predicted, the changing tide is best explained by perceived white interests. In this economic climate, it is impossible to maintain the vast prison state without raising taxes on the (white) middle class.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Monday, May 16, 2011