Making the Moral Case for Criminal Justice Reform

Michelle Alexander, civil and human rights activist and author of the brilliant book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” writes in The New York Times over the weekend about the inadequacy of employing just an economic analysis in order to reform our criminal justice system:

What to do now? Understandably, civil rights advocates and criminal justice reformers are celebrating this moment of what Professor Bell calls “interest convergence.” They say we must catch the wave and ride it. Many have given up all hope of persuading the white electorate that they should care about the severe racial disparities in the criminal justice system or the racial politics that birthed the drug war. It’s possible now, they say, to win big without talking about race or “making it an issue.” Public relations consultants like the FrameWorks Institute — which dedicates itself to “changing the public conversation about social problems” — advise advocates to speak in a “practical tone” and avoid discussions of “fairness between groups and the historical legacy of racism.”

Surely the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have rejected that advice.

In 1963, in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he chastised white ministers for their indifference to black suffering: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ ”

He continued: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Such language would not have tested well in a focus group. Yet it helped to change the course of history.

Those who believe that righteous indignation and protest politics were appropriate in the struggle to end Jim Crow, but that something less will do as we seek to dismantle mass incarceration, fail to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge. If our nation were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, we would have to release 4 out of 5 people behind bars. A million people employed by the criminal justice system could lose their jobs. Private prison companies would see their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our social, political and economic structures that it is not going to fade away without a major shift in public consciousness.

That last paragraph is key.

Currently, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of White males and Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double the rate of White males. We have to be honest about the fact that we’ve turned the criminalization of Black and Brown bodies into a business. We have to have a conversation with Americans about what it means that a nation with our racial history has turned what should be a place where we punish and rehabilitate into a way to produce goods and enrich a few via the labor of Black and Brown bodies.

That is the conversation that Alexander suggests we need to have. And I think she’s absolutely right.

The other thing to consider here is how the economic argument can backfire. If we can’t afford prisons, how come we can afford Social Security, Medicaid and welfare? If we must make hard choices, why are those off the table but prison reform is the first thing we should be cutting?

The only way to really have a conversation about any of these issues is in moral terms.  What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of people do we want to be?

The reason we must provide a safety net and not imprison low-level, nonviolent offenders of color is the same: it is the moral thing to do. The sooner we make the moral arguments that move hearts, the better off the movement will be in the long run.

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