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Per Alexander, drug offenses alone “account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.” And arrests for marijuana possession—a drug that is now legal for recreational use in nine states—made up “nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests during the 1990s.” Crucially, prisons and jails do not reflect demographics outside, where non-Hispanic white Americans still represent a majority (about 61 percent). “Blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession,” says a 2016 Sentencing Project report on state prisons. “This is despite the evidence that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate.” (An NAACP fact sheet suggests that ratio jumps to six to one when you look at rates of imprisonment for drug charges—which could in part be explained by studies like this one, showing major racial disparities in the plea bargaining process, which accounts for more than 90 percent of convictions both at the federal and state levels.) One in 17 white men in this country is likely to end up behind bars. For Latino men it’s one in six. For black men it’s one in three. (Black women are more than six times as likely as white women to end up in prison—Latina women more than twice as likely—and women’s incarceration has been outstripping men’s at a rate of 50 percent since 1980.) Even for those who have finished paying their debt to society, as criminal justice reform advocate and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker likes to say, there are more than 40,000 collateral consequences, including decreased access to social services (food stamps, public housing) and educational and job opportunities, loss of ability to serve on juries and, in some cases, to participate in the democratic process (in Alabama, for example, nearly 30 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote). Permit me a long quote from Alexander’s book: “When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color—people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits—and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt—these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison.
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