We are number one! America likes to think of our nation as number one, the top, the best, and there are a lot of ways this is true. America is the number one economy in the world for example, America is also the number one destination for immigrants who are seeking a better life, but we are also number one in some pretty negative categories as well such as prisons and incarceration rates of citizens. “The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but yet it is home to 25% of the world’s total prison population.” Those were the words of former President Barack Obama on his fight to try and help put an end to mass incarceration in the United States. The 13th amendment to the constitution makes it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave stating “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been convicted, shall exist in the United States, nor any place subject to jurisdiction.” In other words the 13th amendment grants freedom to all Americans except for criminals.
When we look at the civil war we think that is what ended slavery and all though it did pay a very vital role with putting an end to slavery it left a huge economic shift in the south. There were four million people who were formerly deemed as property and slaves that played a huge role in the economy in most southern states and now that these people were free what do you do with these people? How does the south rebuild their economy? The 13th amendment had a loophole that the government immediately exploited after the civil war African Americans were arrested at large and it was the first prison boom this Nation has ever seen. African Americans were arrested for extremely little and petty crimes such as loitering and vagrancy, and for this they were subject to provide labor to rebuild the economy in the south after the civil war.
After the civil war and when many slaves were freed there was a mythology that the black male was a “criminal” saying things such as the black male is “out of control”, and that they “pose a threat to white women especially.” The film Birth of a Nation that came out in February of 1915 shifted a new kind of terrorism against African American community especially in the south. Birth of a Nation portrayed the black man being a threat and portraying the KKK as heroes. After the movie the membership of the KKK highly increased with and a reign of terrorism really began on the African American population with someone being lynched every single day. As years went on it started to become unacceptable to engage in that kind of open terrorism so it shifted to something more legal such as segregation and Jim Crow laws. Laws were passed to separate African American citizens from white citizens forcing African Americans to accept a second class citizenship.
History of Mass Incarceration in the U.S.
To fully understand the prison system in the United States one must look back on their history and figure out why it is the way it is today in the 21st century. In the year 2017 there were 2.3 million Americans being held in prisons that’s more than any other country in the world and typically mass incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon that has taken place in the United States history. According to the Harvard University Press in the “United States of America we imprison more than 700 people per 100,000 citizens” that’s an incarceration rate five times the rate found in European countries (Hinton).
The incarnation of American’s really hit a surge in the 1970’s most people may think that this was probably because of an increase of violence leading the arrest of many people, but this typically is not it. The reason for this surge was because of the public perception that crime was on the rise that was fueled by many media outlets and by politicians who wanted to promote the “get tough” on crime agenda. Because of this new perception it caused decade long projects to rewrite state and federal criminal codes to expand the number of things that one person could get arrested for. The get tough on crime era also lead to longer prison terms and policies that made it harder to earn parole and because of this the prison population in the United States exploded from about 400,000 in 1970 to 2.3 million today (Hinton).
The War on Drugs
Drug use for medical purposes have been a practice in the United States for many many years. According to History.com a popular shopping booklets would include a syringe with a small amount of cocaine because at the time cocaine had not been outlawed. In the late 1980’s acts were passed to put heavy restrictions on things such as cocaine, morphine, and opium. In the year 1914 congress passed the Harrison Act this act put a strict regulation on the importation, distribution, and production on drugs such as cocaine and opiates. However many people argued because opium could still be used as medication. This was the first substance to have a federal ban other than non-medical use.
Next, another major drug war in the United States was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 according to U.S. Legal.com the Marijuana Tax Act “is a U.S. Federal law that imposed tax on the sale of cannabis, hemp, or marijuana.” Although with this law it did not criminalize those who chose to use marijuana, but it was more of an enforcement to people who chose to grow to distribute the product under the provision Marijuana Tax Act U.S.C.S. 4751-4753, “Every person who sells, deals in, dispenses, or gives marijuana must register with the Internal Revenue Service and pay a special occupational tax.” Failure to comply with this resulted in a fine up to $2,000 and up to five years in prison (U.S. Legal).
The War on Drugs really began in the 1970’s under former President of the United States Richard Nixon. During his campaign Nixon preached heavily on the “war on drugs” giving birth to an idea dealing with people who decided to use drugs instead of letting them seek treatment and rehabilitation we would criminalize. Because of this war thousands of people were being sent to jail for low level drug offenses.
Nixon stating “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse in order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new all of offensive.” Because of this tactic by Nixon it became the “southern strategy”, where Nixon begins to recruit southern whites that were formally Democrats into the Republican Party helping him gain numbers in his political campaign. When in reality the “war on drugs” discriminated against many African Americans. A member of the Nixon administration John Ehrlichman even admitted that the war on drugs was more focused on throwing blacks in jail stating “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did” (Ehrlichman). During Nixon’s presidency the prison population rose from 357,292 in the year 1970 to 513,900 by the year 1980 had began.
President Richard Nixon was the first president to really coin the term war on drugs, but President Ronald Regan really put the saying to use during his presidency. During Regan’s presidency a new drug appeared on the scene called crack cocaine it was widely used against people who were of the lower class, while people who used cocaine who mainly of the upper class because it was more expensive. Congress established mandatory sentencing for those who were caught with crack cocaine received way harsher sentencing than those who were caught with powder cocaine.
According to the Human Rights Watch crime statistics show that minorities typically Hispanics and African Americans were more vulnerable to using crack cocaine and received way harsh sentences than Caucasians who used powder cocaine because cocaine was deemed a “luxurious” and more “sophisticated.” According to the Human Rights Watch “African Americans were more likely to be arrested for petty crimes and receive far harsher penalties and sentences.” Also according to the Human Rights Watch statistics show “From 1998 there were a wide racial disparities in arrests, prosecutions, sentencing and deaths. African American drug users made up 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. All together African Americans were sent to prison for drug offenses 13 times more likely than any other races” (Human Rights Watch).
In many ways the so called “war on drugs” was a war on communities of color within the black and Latino communities. President Nixon southern strategy was implemented right after the civil rights movement Nixon intentionally played on the fear of crime to win the votes of people in the south and overall it would help him win the election. Regan promised tax cuts to the rich and to throw all of the crack users in jail, both of which really devastated communities of color, but were very effective on getting the southern vote as well. In 1981 right before Regan took over presidency his campaign strategist Lee Atwater was caught on tape explaining the southern strategy stating “You start out in 1951 by saying nigger. By 1968 you can’t say that anymore it backfires. So you say stuff like forced-bussing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You are getting so abstract now talking about cutting taxes and all of these things are totally economic things and the by-product of all of it is that black get hurt worse more than whites” (Atwater).
Three Strikes Law
In the early 1990’s television news bombarded viewers with scenes of murder, mayhem, blood, and guts the war on crime which by then was 20 years old seemed to not be working. The murder of a California child by a man with a 20 year criminal record was a tipping point for most Americans and a wave of anger had swept through the country. New sentencing laws called “three strikes law” were seen as the answer for people who reoffended chronically. Bill Clinton stated “when you commit a third violent crime you will be put away, and you will be put away for good, three strikes and you are out.”
Despite the sunny reputation California in the early 1990’s was a dangerous place big cities were plagued with street violence, and drugs. Living far from that in the town of Fresno, California Mike Reynolds says that he and his family felt very secure in their neighborhood. In 1992 their lives changed forever their 19 year old daughter Kimber was visiting home from college to attend a wedding where later that night she decided to go out with some friends in downtown Fresno. As she was approaching a vehicle to leave two men approached her and tried to take her purse when she refused to give it to them she has shot in the head and died immediately. The men who killed Kimber were career criminals both of them had a long history in the legal system and were both fresh out of prison and were on parole (New York Times).
Feeling a piece of his world had left him Reynolds knew nothing about the criminal justice system so he invited people to his home and proposed the three strikes law. He spoke countless hours on the topic to many and talked to many different politicians, but did not get very far on his campaign for the bill until another crime hit the news about a year later. In small town northern California called Petaluma 12 year old Polly Klaas was abducted in the middle of the night with her mother sleeping in the room just next to her. After a two month long search for the missing girl investigators ended the search in tragedy Polly had been strangled and left behind in a field. Her killer had a violent past and just in fact been released from prison after service half of his prison system for a previous kidnapping conviction (Gross).
Reynolds petition drive took and over 800,000 signatures were collected for this law to take place. The law was passed in California with a wide vote and by 1996 the three strikes law was effective in 24 states. Crime scholar Frank Zimring stated that Americans were angry because “despite having put a record of number of people in prison crimes still seemed out of control.” While in most states the third strike had to be violent or serious crimes in California the third strike was unique the reason for this was because in California if you commit any type of crime even the pettiest crime it made you eligible for the three strikes law.