Did Black Baptists Join the War on Drugs?

In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. shows how African American voters in Washington DC lobbied for longer prison sentences and more police officers. Forman’s argument complicates the story told by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnesswhich is that white conservatives increased prison sentences and police in order to impose a new system of racial control on black Americans, all under the rubric of a War on Drugs. Underlying Alexander’s argument is the claim that African Americans were not in fact the primary consumers of drugs in the United States; whites were, though they suffered comparatively lower rates of incarceration and arrest.

Forman concedes Alexander’s point about white drug use, but argues that African American leaders played a significant role in the rise of mass incarceration. As he tells it, problems with narcotics coincided with a proliferation of firearms. Guns became the weapon of choice for drug distributors, who turned to crime out of economic necessity and used extreme violence to eliminate competitors, increase market share, and create an illicit, street level, drug market. This market driven violence, maintains Forman, became so intolerable that African American majorities voted for higher prison sentences and more police, effectively joining white conservatives in what Alexander has termed “mass incarceration.” Rather than a coordinated, right wing plot, however, Forman suggests that the story in Washington was a tale of incremental choices by desperate officials who implemented radical policies that had unanticipated effects. Continue reading "Did Black Baptists Join the War on Drugs?"

How and Why is the American Punishment System “Exceptional”?

Anyone interested in American criminal justice has to wonder why we have so many more people in prison—in absolute as well as relative terms—than the western half of the European continent, the part of the world most readily comparable to us. This book, consisting of eleven chapters by eminent criminal law scholars, criminologists and political scientists, provides both a detailed look at how U.S. punishment is different and an insightful analysis of why that might be so. While many chapters in the book describe previously declared positions of the authors, there is also much that is new in the book, particularly with respect to non-prison sanctions; whether veterans of the field or newcomers to it, readers should find this collection of the area’s leading scholars extremely useful. As the primary Reporter for the recently complete revisions to the Model Penal Code’s sentencing provisions and director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at Minnesota Law School, editor Kevin Reitz is ideally situated to bring this impressive compendium of material together.

In the opening chapter, Reitz lays out the reason for the book, describing the well-known American mass punishment phenomenon in ways that present the problem in a new light. For instance, he notes that the U.S. would have to release 1.8 million inmates simply to achieve the same imprisonment rate as England and Wales, western Europe’s leader in per capita imprisonment. Whether the focus is long-term confinement, the use of probation and parole, or the imposition of collateral consequences, Reitz notes, we “beat” all western European countries hands-down. Continue reading "How and Why is the American Punishment System “Exceptional”?"

The Causes of Punitiveness

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America is a look at the recent history of African-American attitudes toward crime. In many ways the book is a codicil to Michelle Alexander’s well-known work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of the Age of Colorblindness, and to the writing of people like Glenn Loury and Ian Haney Lopez.  Alexander, Loury and Lopez argue that today’s hyper-incarceration and long sentences result from a white-dominated legal system bent on removing blacks from the streets, using the “war on drugs” as a cover, and imply that things would be different if blacks had been in control of the system. Locking Up Our Own contests those views.

Making Forman’s case is difficult, because largely white legislatures were and still are in charge of criminal justice in most jurisdictions. But Forman’s focus is on Washington, D.C., where, from the mid-1970s through the end of the twentieth century (the period covered by the first five chapters in his book) African-Americans were in power. Not only were that city’s chiefs of police black (as was the case in many major cities), but the municipal council—the body effectively in charge of crime definition and sentencing in D.C., given Congress’ acquiescence in matters of criminal justice—was usually majority African-American as well. Yet the criminal justice policies in that city were at least as punitive as those in other jurisdictions. Continue reading "The Causes of Punitiveness"

The Definition of Suspicion in an Era of Modern Policing

Jane Bambauer, Hassle, 113 Mich. L. Rev. 461 (2015).

Every Fourth Amendment scholar is familiar with the concept of “individualized suspicion.” The classic example comes from Terry v. Ohio, where Officer McFadden watched two men walk up and down in front of a storefront numerous times, consult with another individual, and then return to checking out the storefront. The Supreme Court held that, while McFadden did not have probable cause for arrest, he had a “particularized” belief that the three men were up to no good and thus could stop them and, when they gave unsatisfactory answers about their activity, frisk them as well.

That type of case is often contrasted with what are sometimes called “suspicionless” searches and seizures. The classic example of that type of police action is the license or sobriety checkpoint that stops individuals who drive up to it. The Court has indicated that such seizures are permissible despite the absence of suspicion that any particular driver seized has an expired license or is drunk, as long as the police stop everyone who comes to the checkpoint or rely on neutral criteria in deciding whom to stop (such as whether the car occupies a pre-selected position in line). Continue reading "The Definition of Suspicion in an Era of Modern Policing"

Are Prosecutors the Constitution’s Gatekeepers?

Russell M. Gold, Beyond the Judicial Fourth Amendment: The Prosecutor’s Role, 47 UC Davis L. Rev. 1591 (2014).

This is a bad time for the police officers. Last year, a series of cases in New York federal court exposed the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy as unlawful and racially biased. Following the shooting in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, thousands took to the streets to protest. The prosecutors in these two cases were widely criticized as well for failing to obtain indictments against the officers. Many wondered whether the prosecutors were complicit in a system fraught with inequality and prejudice. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, responded that the criminal justice system is “out of balance.” In a new article, Russell Gold argues that we can help restore the reputation of the criminal justice system by implementing what he calls, “administrative suppression.”

Administrative suppression would require prosecutors to decline to use illegally seized evidence even if courts would rule the evidence admissible. Prosecutors, in other words, have a constitutional and ethical obligation not to use evidence seized in violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. In the past few decades, the Court has radically restricted the scope of the exclusionary rule, and as a result, illegally seized evidence is often admissible in criminal cases. Gold argues that these decisions only pertain to the judicial branch. Rather than exploit the increasingly weak remedy to obtain more convictions, prosecutors, in their role as arbiters of justice and agents of the executive branch, should respond by refusing to use the tainted evidence in their cases. Continue reading "Are Prosecutors the Constitution’s Gatekeepers?"

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