A shocking number of youth of color are “pre-criminalized” via their negative experiences of school. Instead of helping these children to succeed, underfunded and overcrowded schools tend to regard them as a threat to discipline. In California tens of thousands are wrongly assigned to special education or medicalized or shunted into detention rooms that all but invite them to drop out. Tens of thousands more are repeatedly suspended and then finally expelled for what is called “defiance.” Having a “record” at school sets these kids up for having a criminal record. Breaking this school-to-prison pipeline by preventing dropouts and pushouts is a top priority for everyone seeking to end mass incarceration.
What Michelle Alexander calls the “roundup” of youth of color and all people of color rests very heavily on arrests and convictions for low-level nonviolent drug possession—marijuana primarily. Although whites and nonwhites use drugs at roughly the same levels, the people who are picked up and sent to jail for drug use are overwhelmingly people of color and African American people in particular. To stop the roundup we need to reform our drug laws and also bar the kind of law enforcement that selectively targets some communities and not others.
The “get tough on crime” movement of past decades has saddled the court system with a big array of mandatory sentences that keep our prisons and jails full but have not been shown to deter crime. California has the harshest “Three Strikes” law in the country – a law that locks people away for 25 years to life even if their third offense was a very minor crime. We can’t put an end to mass incarceration without revisiting and reforming mindless mandatory sentencing laws.
Like most states, California has never seriously invested in helping ex-offenders re-establish themselves in society after serving their time. To the contrary, ex-offenders are stigmatized in a variety of ways—barred from many forms of employment, unable to receive public benefits of various kinds, and effectively disenfranchised. Because California is now required by a federal court to significantly reduce state prison populations, this could be an opportunity for low-level offenders to be released into re-entry programs. Instead, under what is called “realignment,” many county sheriffs are seeking to keep low-level offenders locked up rather than assist in their successful re-entry. We need to fight for real re-entry support services if realignment is not to become just another form of warehousing.
Perhaps the single most barbaric aspect of mass incarceration in California is the cruel practice of assigning inmates to solitary confinement. This practice, affecting as many as 6,000 inmates at any given time, has been judged inhumane and unacceptable by human rights experts. It literally destroys the health and sanity of many of its victims. Moreover, prison authorities have been totally unable to support the claim that their heavy use of solitary is aimed solely at reducing gang activity. Instead, the cruelty of the practice is underscored by its arbitrariness: people are “validated” for solitary not because of their gang affiliation but because they manage to run afoul of all-powerful corrections officers. People of faith must join forces with the families of those in solitary to put an end to this shameful abuse of human beings.