Written by David Greenwald Thursday, 24 January 2013 08:32
The discussion was based on the concept of "The New Jim Crow," as defined in the book by Michelle Alexander, dealing with the mass levels of incarceration in the US - which has 25% of the world's prison population despite only having 5% of the world's total population.
Ms. Alexander particularly views the nation's drug laws as a new form of societal suppression, which has led the majority of young black men in large American cities to be "warehoused in prisons."
Ms. Alexander wrote, "The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice. All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey who have defied the odds and achieved great power, wealth and fame."
The consequences are large numbers of African-Americans who are unable to gain employment and are disenfranchised. She sees current activities replacing the Jim Crow laws, which in turn had replaced slavery.
Sasha Abramsky, a free-lance journalist argued, "One of the things that has happened in the last 30 or 40 years is this dynamic has emerged in America towards what I'm going to call mass-incarceration."
"In California, in 2010, the incarceration rate was 595 per 100,000 and that's a huge number, it's about five times higher than any of our other peer nations," he said. "But for African-Americans it was 5500 per 100,000 people and you see these trends all over the country."
"I think what we're seeing is an overlap of poverty, we're seeing an overlap of constricted educational opportunities. We're seeing some incredibly counter-productive drug sentencing policies that were put into place about 40 years ago," he said. "We're still unraveling those policies today."
"I think when you overlap all of those issues and then you overlap a history of racial segregation and the lack of opportunities, especially in the deep south where the highest incarceration rates exist, that's where you're creating a recipe for this incredibly toxic use of prisons as a management tool for poverty," he continued. "I think that's what we're seeing today, we're seeing prisons being used almost as a sort of social work intervention and it's an absolutely crazy way to deal with poverty in the country."
Joe Schwartz will be teaching an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) class in the Winter Quarter, "Mass Incarceration: Fighting Crime or Social Control?" He is a co-founder of Village Harvest Davis.
He made the point that almost all of the prisoners incarcerated today are going to be released someday. "About 700,000 prisoners are released each year. With constrained budgets, the amount of money that we have spent on corrections each year has increased while the amount of funding designed to keep people out of prison or to help keep them from returning to prison has been cut."
"We have this double whammy, spending a lot more money on corrections and lot less money spent on programs meant to keep people out of prison," he said.
Bernita Toney, a graduate of UC Davis and a local activist, described herself as a victim of "being wrongfully accused and needing to spend months in the past, it has been years to protect my innocence and to remain outside of prison."
She described the difficulty of attempting "to provide for my family in a limited situation where it's very difficult to obtain a job when you find yourself in a 21 month period, in court 19 times."
She had to appear in court 19 times in a 21- month period before being acquitted on one of the cases.
"Situations like this will have a profound effect on a family, on a single parent family," Ms. Toney said. "I believe this is nationwide."
"We have serious problems of prosecutorial discretion in the country and in a place called YOLO COUNTY," Former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso told the audience. "I have seen so many cases where the district attorney will add enhancements to the person being prosecuted and then will drop them when the person agrees that they are gang members because then they can get out of jail."
"By having a greater number of folk identified as gang members then the DA's office can get more money from the federal government and the state to fight gangs," he said.
"The prosecutorial discretion will only be used when you have arrests," the former Chief Justice continued. "Important in that is the police practices and again we have serious problems of police practices in this country and a place called Yolo County."
He described his work with a citizen's commission involved in investigating the killing of a young farm worker by the Yolo County Sheriff's Department. Luis Gutierrez-Navarro, a farmworker, had immigrated to Yolo County ten years prior to his death.
"During his life he had been stopped somewhere between 10 and 15 times by the police for traffic stops for one reason or another including one time because he was riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the street," Justice Reynoso said. "Why's that important? Because the police have discretion very often when they stop somebody to then search. When they search and they find something illegal they can then arrest the person. If they never stop, of course they'll never find anything."
"Disproportionately, minorities like that young farmworker get stopped so often," he said arguing that this plays into the discrepancy of incarceration rates.
Following up on that point, Mr. Abramsky said, "The thing about prosecutorial discretion is it's also police discretion. I think what you see at every stage in the process more African-Americans and Latinos than whites are arrested. More are prosecuted. When they're prosecuted, more are sent to jail and prison. And when they're sent to jail and prison, they're sent there for longer."
"So at every step of the process, there are measurable ways in which the discretion of the process works against African-American and Latino populations," he said noting that it is also economic in addition to racial, and so there are discrepancies in low-income white populations.
"In terms of the impact, I think the impact is a series of counter-productive feedback loops," Mr. Abramsky continued. "Because if you go to prison, when you come out of prison, you're going to earn less money."
He said that the Bureau of Labor statistics show that people that go to prison earn at least 40 percent less income than people who do not. Former convicted criminals find it harder to get access to employment and public housing. They also have more difficulty getting access to government-funded education.
He also noted that they will have more difficulty participating in the political process. He said, "Not every state has permanent disenfranchisement, but every state disenfranchises prisoners and most states disenfranchise parolees, and about a dozen states permanently disenfranchise."
"In about a dozen states," he said, "if you have committed a felony, you're never going to vote again. There are a million people in Florida who can't vote - disproportionately, that million people" are minorities.
"As more people go to prison, you do create this larger and larger underclass," he said.
Most of these people end up coming out of prison at some point and you end up with a whole class of people who have trouble getting jobs and trouble getting resources to get their lives back in order.
Joe Schwartz noted that drug offense statistics are readily available and they show that "whites, African Americans, Hispanics used drugs all about the same rate. But if you look at 2010, African Americans on drug offenses were incarcerated at eight times the rate of whites."
"This goes to Cruz's point, where are we stopping and searching? And who is it that we're picking up?" he asked. "We're not stopping and searching on college campuses."
Cruz Reynoso pointed out, "They have to get a court order to go into some house. So those who are rich can use drugs inside their houses and police can't search inside their properties. But those who use the drugs on the streets can be searched by the police and we end up with that disproportionate arrestees in prison even though the drug use was actually very much the same throughout ethnic and racial groups."
Joe Schwartz noted that while African-Americans make up about 14% of the drug users, they represent 37% of the arrests and 56% of the incarcerations.
"In order to prevent mass incarceration, I think there needs to be resources other than the public defenders who are inadequately prepared to assist the numbers and the cases that they have against the district attorney's office who receive most of the funding," Bernita Toney said. "Preventing mass incarceration should be the primary focus."
She said that there are few resources and no assistance provided for people when they are fighting for their freedom against the system.
"There is the fear of when you are accused," she continues. "When you are in our country it is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but that's a myth. You're definitely guilty until you prove your innocence."
She said that you have to be strong because "if you're living in this county, they're coming after you again, especially if you beat them."
She noted that in the realignment process that the county was receiving $8 million from the state, but none of that was going to people caught up in the process of attempting to defend themselves.
Cruz Reynoso shared a story from when he headed up the pepper-spray task force looking into the November 18, 2011 incident on the UC Davis Campus.
He met with an expert on police practices, "He said he had worked with many many dozens of police departments... he said he had only met with one police department that had the practices he feels should be part of the practices of every single department and it's this: the police will know what the rules are and they will enforce the laws and the rules of the department."
"If they fail to do that, they should know that a fellow police officer will turn them into to the supervisors," Cruz Reynoso said. Only one department had that, according to the expert he spoke to. "Most departments, in the police department they have the practice of defending one another."
"I've seen that happen in the District Attorney's Office in Yolo County, in the police department in Woodland, and the police department before at UC Davis," he said. "I haven't had experience with the other police departments in Yolo County, but I really doubt that they fit that ideal. And what we need is for every department to fit that ideal."
Cruz Reynoso shared another story from Washington where they conducted an experiment on some prisoners as they were released from prison.
"They took 50% of those who were being released from prison and put them on unemployment insurance for six months," he said. The rest got the few hundred that they normally got. That was the experiment.
There were two studies that came out of that. First was regarding the recidivism rate for those who received the unemployment insurance and those who did not.
"Not surprisingly those who were not on unemployment insurance had a far higher recidivism rate," he said. "So perhaps they committed more crimes, perhaps they violated more probation rules."
They did a second study to see whether it was cheaper to put people on unemployment insurance rather than re-arresting them.
"The answer was it was a lot cheaper to have them be on unemployment insurance," he said.
"Then I asked, what did the state of Washington do with that?" he said. "He said, nothing."
He said, "I asked why. He said that the legislators were afraid they would be accused of being soft on crime if they put those who were getting out of prison on unemployment insurance."
Cruz Reynoso argued this shows the responsibility of all citizens, because here you had a study that showed it was cheaper and more effective to put people on unemployment insurance rather than re-arrest them, but the legislator was too scared of the political ramifications.
---David M. Greenwald reporting