The famous singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone once said, “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.”
Arguably, today’s prison system is the nation’s revised approach to slavery with law and order as its widely accepted ideology and mandatory sentencing for non-violent crimes as the new slave-trade pipeline.
In a speech on police and veterans in Virginia, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump declared himself the “law and order candidate” and went on to say that “decades of decay, division and decline will come to an end.”
Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric echoes that of fellow politicians who made crime cleanup their platform.
In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon proclaimed that America’s public enemy number one was drug abuse, and thus waged the war on drugs. According to the Human Rights Watch, Nixon’s "War on Drugs" disproportionately targeted African Americans. The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice non-profit, found that for all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 in the U.S., the drug arrests rate for Black people spiked from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons. Comparatively, during the same period, the drug arrest rate for white people hardly increased at all from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons.
In a 1994 Harper’s Bazaar interview that resurfaced, Nixon’s former advisor, John D. Ehrlichman, stated that the policy was designed to target Black people and hippies. Twenty four years later, and the "War on Drugs" has evolved into a different crime platform; the war on violent crime.
Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 would later contribute to an already rising rate of mass incarceration. The NAACP reports that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Blacks are also more likely to serve longer sentences for drug offenses than whites who commit violent crimes.
So, while Clinton’s bill wasn’t the sole scapegoat behind the mass incarceration of Blacks, it subscribed to a larger agenda.
The "War on Drugs" and Violent Crime Control were essentially the same thing; a war on Black people. Both were insidious political efforts that left thousands of Blacks in prison for non-violent drug offenses and failed to move the needle on its mission all while eliciting racism.
Based on historical context, Trump’s self-proclaimed “law and order” candidacy is a trite reaction to his unsubstantiated claim about crime rising, not a solution-focused response to the nation’s current climate and root problem around policing and community relations.
In response to Trump’s "tough on crime" stance, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, as well as other law enforcement groups, released an open letter to Trump stating that they believe lowering incarceration rates will help police officials reduce crime. Ronal Serpas, chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, declares that there is no connection between incarceration and declining crime rates.
“We believe that we are the not-soft-on-crime crowd," he said. "We are retired or active police chiefs, prosecutors, federal and state correctional professionals. We’ve spent our entire adult life trying to make our community safe. What we see now is putting the right people in jail who are the dangerous repeat offenders is far more efficient than the number of people we have to incarcerate in America because of mandatory sentences or alternative to arrests not being present,” said Serpas.
Serpas went on to share that twenty seven states have reduced mandatory sentencing on non-violent offenses. In his personal experience as the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, when arrests decreased by 40%, he observed that murder and other crimes fell dramatically.
Louisiana enacted three new prison reform laws in May of 2012. Since then, New Orleans’ murder rate dropped by fifty percent since its peak in 2006, according to the FBI crime reports. There’s also a financial benefit for states to eliminate mandatory sentencing.
In 2012, a whopping 70% of California voters passed Proposition 36, which changed the “three strikes” mandatory minimum law that required a life sentence for a third offense no matter how minor, and proposed alternative methods besides prison for drug abuse offenders. According to a study by UCLA that was reported by the New York Times, Proposition 36 saved the state $173 million in the first year.
Criminal justice reform isn’t a liberal “thing." A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey found that 77% of Americans support dispelling mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes. But legislation rarely reflects the opinion of the constituents it represents, especially when it affects big business for corporations.
While criminal justice reform has proven to save states money, prisons are a cash cow for corporations. For instance, Corizon makes $1.4 billion a year by providing healthcare in over 530 correctional facilities in 28 states. The bail industry profits from poor people — usually Black people — having to use their service and have actually lobbied for laws that encourage judges to set higher bails. The rich and wealthy stay out of prison, the poor stay in prison. The for-profit industry is worth about $70 billion. Companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The Geo Group contribute to political campaigns that will help increase their profits and offer to buy prisons from cash-strapped states. Similar to slavery, prison is making it rain for corporations.
JP Morgan Chase revealed their links to slavery. In a statement made by the banking giant, between 1831 and 1865, two of the company’s predecessor banks – Citizens Bank and Canal Bank of Louisiana – accepted approximately 13,000 enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and took ownership of approximately 1,250 of them when the plantation owners defaulted on the loans. The average slave was worth $400 in 1850, so Chase made $500,000 when they took ownership of those 1,250 slaves. Today the average slave would be worth $12,000. That would translate to $15,000,000 in profit in today’s economy.
Law and order is arbitrary when it comes to the citizens it's meant to protect. For Black people, it’s the school-to-prison pipeline, guilty until proven more guilty, and harsher sentences. But it doesn’t have to be. More than half the states in the U.S. have repealed mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes with some making its repeal retroactive. The solution is also on the grassroots level with improving community-police relations, so that police interactions do not always lead to arrests.
Diversity training is a start, but quite frankly, street sense and grasping cultural nuances can go even further. For instance, not all loiters are committing crimes; some of them are homeless and/or are living in harsh conditions. Baggy clothes doesn’t automatically mean someone is a gangsta.
Fully immersing police officers in targeted neighborhoods so they get acclimated with the community facilitates police-community relations. Partnering police officers with active community members helps. Transparency and accountability of police officers’ actions can also help.
Prison should be the last resort for the nation’s least violent, not the first line of defense that favors a historic economic archetype targeting the same people as slavery did not even 200 years ago.