In this heated election season there's one issue on which Prison Fellowship-oriented conservative evangelicals and their opposites on the left can agree: We have too many people in prison and not enough opportunity for ex-prisoners. Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010) provides evidence that legal defense for the indigent is not what it should be, that plea bargaining and justice often do not go together, and that sentencing rules for minor drug offenses should change.
But that's not all: Conservatives should pay attention to this book because it challenges many assumptions about both race and drugs. Both 15-year-old African-Americans on the streets and 30-year-old whites in public defender offices know what many of us don't want to admit: that race plays a significant role in the criminal justice system. Another hard admission, because I don't have an alternative to recommend: The war on drugs isn't working, not only for all the readily visible reasons but because it rips apart families.
The New Jim Crow also argues that affirmative action statistics have blinded us and made us think we're further along on race than we really are-but the warped criminal justice system shows us how far we have to go. Affirmative action has contributed to the expansion of an African-American middle and upper class, but it hasn't helped blacks on the bottom. It's also hurt poor and middle-class whites who cried foul and received the "racist" tag. Alexander notes that "civil rights advocates offered no balm for the wound, publicly resisting calls for class-based affirmative action."
She suggests that "the time has come to give up the racial bribes and begin an honest conversation about race in America." The topic of the conversation should be "how us can come to include all of us." She suggests "giving up fierce defense of policies and strategies that exacerbate racial tensions." Maybe it's time for a bargain: Liberals acknowledge that it's time to declare victory and end the affirmative action that has helped better-off African-Americans who can now stand on their own feet. Conservatives pitch in for reform of drug, sentencing, and prison laws and rules that further harm the already hard lives of poor blacks (and whites).
As Alexander writes about those accused of even minor drug crimes, "Once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences." Reforming that can start with a recognition by more Christians that the people who have been most penalized and stigmatized by the war on drugs are worthy of our concern.
Thomas Sowell's Dismantling America (Basic, 2010) is a collection of his recent columns on governmental policies and a wide variety of issues. The title comes from his consternation about the Obama administration's attack on so much of what has made America great, from political liberty to economic opportunity. He notes that "what is especially disturbing about the political left is that they . . . tend to see the problems of the world as due to other people not being as wise or as noble as themselves."
Joe Flood's The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities (Riverhead, 2010) is a cautionary tale about trying to decide complicated political and social problems by running numbers rather than listening to stories. Flood is right to be concerned about the way that "statistics have implanted themselves so deeply into the way cities and governments are run." Stats are useful, but the decades of experience of people who have lived through problems sometimes teach us more. Flood's specific reporting on the way that Mayor John Lindsay and others destroyed their city during the 1970s is also fascinating.