I’ve already discussed the undeniable fact that police and prosecutors go after minorities rather than whites, especially when it comes to the war on drugs, and that the system is rigged to prevent any possibility of a fair trial once they’re charged, leading most to plead guilty even if they’re innocent. Now let’s look at what happens to someone once they plead guilty. Short answer: For all practical purposes, they’re screwed.
Once you have a felony conviction on your record, even for a minor offense like marijuana possession, you are effectively shut out of mainstream society. Even if you were totally on the straight and narrow and dedicated to bettering yourself, there are incredible roadblocks in your path, especially if you’re poor (as the overwhelming majority of them are).
When you get out of jail, your odds of finding a job are dramatically reduced by having to check the box on the application that says you’ve been convicted of a felony. Want to go to college? You are now ineligible for Pell grants and other forms of tuition assistance. You can’t support yourself, but you’re also now ineligible for many forms of public assistance, including public housing and, in many states, even food stamps. You may not even be allowed to vote for a number of years, or ever, depending on the state you’re in.
On top of that, you’ve probably got a huge bill from the state or county stemming from your stay in jail — fees paid to the public defender office and the courts, per diem charges from the jail, fees paid to the parole officer for keeping track of you. And if you can’t pay them, you can be rearrested for failing to live up to the terms of your probation and thrown back in jail to start the whole process over again. You could hardly design a more perfect system for creating a permanent underclass that is shut out of society, herded into ghettos and prevented from ever improving their lives. This is what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow.
And it doesn’t even have to be motivated overtly by racism. There are built in incentives that push the actors at every level in the same direction to maintain that caste system. Police departments qualify for federal grants by increasing the number of people arrested for drugs, so the focus isn’t on the kingpins but on arresting as many of the low level users and dealers as they can. Prosecutors are elected and they get reelected by pumping up their conviction rate, giving the incentive to get guilty pleas whenever possible. Everyone is acting in their own rational self-interest, even if they aren’t motivated by racism.
The United States has now constructed the most powerful system of mass incarceration the world has ever seen and created a permanent underclass that is not unlike the caste system in India. And the courts have made it all but impossible to bring a legal challenge on due process or equal protection grounds. It is a moral outrage and it must be dismantled.