Dealing with this system on its own terms is complicated by the problem of denial. Few Americans today recognize mass incarceration for what it is: a new caste system thinly veiled by the cloak of colorblindness.
We may improve some school districts, prolong affirmative action for another decade or two, or force some police departments to condemn racial profiling, but we will not put a dent in the prevailing caste system. We must face the realities of the new caste system and embrace those who are most oppressed by it if we hope to end the new Jim Crow.
Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill? Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.
The predictions of “super-predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super-predator” theory to disclaim it. In 2001, the surgeon general of the United States released a report labeling the “super-predator” theory a myth and stated that “[t]here is no evidence that young people involved in violence during the peak years of the early 1990s were more frequent or more vicious offenders than youths in earlier years.” This admission came too late for kids like Trina, Ian, and Antonio. Their death-in-prison sentences were insulated from legal challenges or appeals by a maze of procedural rules, statutes of limitations, and legal barricades designed to make successful postconviction challenges almost impossible.
By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children—thirteen or fourteen years of age—were black or Latino. Florida had the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.
People who are not poor and who are not dependent upon public assistance for housing need not fear that, if their son, daughter, caregiver, or relative is caught with some marijuana at school or shoplifts from a drugstore, they will find themselves suddenly evicted—homeless. But for countless poor people—particularly racial minorities who disproportionately rely on public assistance—that possibility looms large. As a result, many families are reluctant to allow their relatives—particularly those who are recently released from prison—to stay with them, even temporarily.
Many states utilize “poverty penalties”—piling on additional late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals are unable to pay all their debts at once, often enriching private debt collectors in the process. Some of the collection fees are exorbitant. Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, and Florida allows private debt collectors to tack on a 40 percent surcharge to the underlying debt.
Two-thirds of people detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest. Predictably, most ex-offenders find themselves unable to pay the many fees, costs, and fines associated with their imprisonment, as well as their child-support debts (which continue to accumulate while a person is incarcerated). As a result, many ex-offenders have their paychecks garnished. Federal law provides that a child-support enforcement officer can garnish up to 65 percent of an individual’s wages for child support. On top of that, probation officers in most states can require that an individual dedicate 35 percent of his or her income toward the payment of fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution charged by numerous agencies. Accordingly, a former inmate living at or below the poverty level can be charged by four or five departments at once and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. As a New York Times editorial soberly observed, “People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.”
“People never hurt others in moments of strength and bravery, or when we’re feeling good about ourselves. If we spent all of our time in places such as that, then fighting for social justice would be redundant—we would simply have social justice and be done with it, and we could all go swimming, or dancing, or whatever people do. But it is because we spend so much of our time in that other place—a place of diminished capacity and wavering commitment—that we have to be careful.”
–White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise
It is not uncommon for a young black teenager living in a ghetto community to be stopped, interrogated, and frisked numerous times in the course of a month, or even a single week, often by paramilitary units.
The militarized nature of law enforcement in ghetto communities has inspired rap artists and black youth to refer to the police presence in black communities as “The Occupation.” In these occupied territories, many black youth automatically “assume the position” when a patrol car pulls up, knowing full well that they will be detained and frisked no matter what.
Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets.
Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken, racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity.
“It’s hard to put into words the degree of entitlement that comes from knowing even at the age of five that your parents have your back, and that if some authority figure gets out of line, your mom and dad will support you.”
–White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise