Michelle Alexander: Sentence Enhancement for Drug Offenders Is a tool of Community Destruction

Sentence Enhancement

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Ten years ago in Los Angeles, Theresa Martinez was finally making progress in her long, painful struggle against drug addiction and the cycle of incarceration it fueled. But in order to continue her methadone program, she needed $200. Homeless, unemployed, and terrified of falling back into heroin addiction, she tried to get the money the only way she knew: selling drugs.

Martinez was arrested for a $5 sale of cocaine, a felony that, absent aggravating factors, carried a three-year prison sentence. By global standards that penalty would have been unusual and harsh, especially since she plainly needed help and support — not incarceration. But here in the United States, Martinez faced an even worse fate. California law prescribes sentencing “enhancements” for anyone who has a prior drug-related felony conviction. Martinez was threatened with a nine-year sentence. Anguished, she took a plea deal for six years, bringing her lifetime total to 23 years behind bars, all for drugs.

michelle-alexander-200The sentence enhancement that doubled, and could have tripled Martinez’s third time behind bars is a brutal tool of the ineffective war on drugs, a war that has been waged primarily against poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that rates of illegal drug use and sales are similar across racial lines.

Michelle Alexander
Los Angeles Times

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About Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. In recent years, she has taught at a number of universities, including Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor of law and directed the Civil Rights Clinics. In 2005, she won a Soros Justice Fellowship, which supported the writing of The New Jim Crow, and that same year she accepted a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. Since its first publication,The New Jim Crow has received rave reviews and has been featured in national radio and television media outlets, including MSNBC, NPR, Bill Moyers Journal, Tavis Smiley, C-SPAN, and Washington Journal, among others. In March, the book won the 2011 NAACP Image Award for best nonfiction.