Mass incarceration has been a problem in this country for decades and it all began with the War on Drugs. Politicians exploited African Americans with what Michelle Alexander refers to as “thinly veiled racism” by necessitating a war on drugs and cracking down on crime that stemmed from the Civil Rights Movement. Clinton exaggerated the War on Drugs initially suggested by Nixon. Despite drug use declining during this time, funding flooded and SWAT teams were developed to break into homes, sometimes murdering innocent people in front of their families, often to only find a few grams of marijuana. Even if more serious drugs were found, dependency and addiction were overlooked. Law enforcement met these instances with harsh mandatory minimum sentences instead of supporting a treatment-based solution for drug users. African Americans were especially attacked by this systematic circumstance, because drugs like crack, associated with their community, yielded longer sentences than did cocaine, associated with the white community. This search mechanism is why such high racial disparities exist in prisons. Bruce Western notes, “Incarceration deepens inequality because its negative social and economic effects are concentrated in the poorest communities” (Western, 303). Not only are racial disparities present, but the gap between the rich and poor is expanded by our criminal justice system.
It seems that the criminal justice system is focused not on finding criminals and serving justice, but on finding a way for someone to end up in a cage and out of society. “Never before…have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent” (Alexander, 87). Admitting to a crime that one didn’t commit to avoid a longer prison sentence has become typical, because it is too risky to go to trial. Even after being released from cages, society meets these “criminals” with distaste and treats them as outcasts. Once labeled a felon, one can longer vote in elections and has a much more difficult time getting a job and housing, similar to the old Jim Crow Laws.
Deindustrialization, globalization, and technological advancements led to urban factories shutting down and rising unemployment rates among the black community in the mid-1980s. This economic collapse could have inspired a War on Poverty. Money could have been allocated toward “education, job training, public transportation, and relocation assistance…a wave of compassion and concern could have flooded poor and working-class communities” (Alexander, 218). Instead of a rehabilitative strategy insisting that black people trapped in jobless ghettos were valuable to society, a War on Drugs was initiated to keep them out.
Last Chance in Texas illustrates an alternative juvenile courts are using where youth who commit crimes get a chance to explore their crime with their peers and counselors working to guide them toward a better path. Activities include role playing and talking through their lives, emphasizing the human and not the crime and recognizing that factors that lead to criminal behavior start long before the crime is committed. Just Mercy demonstrates why alternatives to incarceration are so necessary with Stevenson’s account of his representation for wrongly convicted individuals. Innocent people go on trial and end up incarcerated all the time, exaggerating the need for alternatives because the system doesn’t always judge correctly. This book follows the story of a man on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Resources like therapy and a multidisciplinary approach are what the criminal justice system needs. A social worker’s perspective can go a long way, paving avenues for therapy, counseling, and institutions to support individuals caught in a cycle of punition. Probation is one alternative to incarceration, but it is useless without proper monitoring and guidance.
The benefits associated with an alternative that doesn’t remove individuals from their families are tenfold. Social ties remain, which support healthy transitions back into society and away from criminal behavior. Children of offenders don’t have to enter unsettling environments to visit their parents. Moreover, the ultimate goal of reintegration is easier to see when a person is surrounded by a normal community instead of a assembly of other people who have committed crimes. It is necessary to remember that individuals who commit crimes were led to this behavior by a series of events, often beginning in infancy. Humanizing criminals and coming up with alternatives to storing them away and out of our sights is the only way to expect a decrease in the individuals incarcerated and an increase in the productivity and unity in society.
- Hubner, J. (2005). Last chance in Texas: the redemption of criminal youth. New York: Random House.
- Stevenson, B. (2014). Just mercy: a story of justice and redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
- Western, B. (2014). Incarceration, Inequality, and Imagining Alternatives. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 651, 302-306. Retrieved from
- Alexander, M. (2011). The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press.