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Tuesday, 14 May 2013 07:30

The Graphic Truth of America's Criminal Justice System

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Support Truthout's mission. "Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling" is yours with a minimum donation to Truthout of $25 (which includes shipping and handling) or a monthly donation of $15.



CoverFINALRace and justice in America are inextricably linked. A walk through nearly any courtroom or prison reveals a sea of black and brown faces, from the defendant's table to the prison yard. - Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling

Race to Incarcerate, Marc Mauer's 1999 authoritative book on America's criminal justice system, has been reimagined as a work of graphic non-fiction. In Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling, painter, comic book artist, and illustrator Sabrina Jones transforms Mauer's history of the criminal justice system into a powerful true crime story -- accessible to young readers and people of all ages.

Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project in Washington D.C., and Jones is the author and graphic artist of Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography and a number of politically focused comics.

"If current trends continue, one of every three black males and one of every six Latino males born today can expect to find themselves at some point behind bars," according to a press release issued by the New Press announcing the publication of Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling.

America's criminal justice system hasn't always been completely oriented to a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach. In fact, despite periodic surges of criminal activity, the number of prisoners in the United States remained relatively stable through most of the 20th century. In the 1970s, however, things began to change: In 1972, there were 300,000 prisoners behind bars in the country; by 2010, that number had skyrocketed to 2.3 million. At 730 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens, the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world, outstripping Russia, Iran, China, Brazil, Japan, Britain, France, and Germany. Young black and Latino men have been disproportionally the target of this rush to incarcerate.

First published in 1999, Marc Mauer's Race to Incarcerate quickly became the seminal text exposing the exponential growth of the U.S. prison system. Mauer, one of the country's foremost experts on sentencing policy, race, and the criminal justice system, explained how "tough on crime" political rhetoric and the war on drugs swelled the prison population while devastating communities of color.

Michelle Alexander, the author of the recent bestseller The New Jim Crow, called Mauer's original book "utterly indispensable" to her work "as a civil rights lawyer and advocate challenging racial profiling by law enforcement, investigating patterns of drug law enforcement, and launching media campaigns designed to raise awareness about skyrocketing incarceration rates and the devastating toll that 'get tough' policies were having in our communities."

Jonathan Kozol, a prolific author, educator, and activist, called the book "A tremendously disturbing and important book about the devastating increase in our prison population. ... The questions that it poses calls for answers that too few of those in power have been brave enough to give." Civil Rights leader and activist Julian Bond stated that the book "Explains why prisoners have become commodities and why present policies are draining black communities of their young men."

Fourteen years after the original edition and seven years after an update, many things have changed, and "there is now reason for cautious optimism about the accomplishments and prospects for reform," Mauer writes in the Preface to the newly released Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling (The New Press, 2013). Mauer states in the Preface, "After nearly four decades of sustained growth, prison populations appear to be stabilizing, and even declining in some states."

There have been "significant national reductions in population in the juvenile justice system, where the number of young people in detention has declined by a third since the late 1990s." "Get Tough" prison sentencing policies have seen "encouraging breakthroughs." Mauer also points out that "Developments in the courts are also encouraging, none more so that a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the sentencing of juveniles."

And perhaps the "most promising" development "is the shift in public dialogue about criminal justice policy."

Despite these developments, "we also need to recognize the enormous scale of the problem at hand. After nearly four decades of steadily rising imprisonment, reducing our level of incarceration to anything reasonable will require far more than just tinkering with sentencing and parole policy."  

Even if the doyens of our criminal justice system were to issue a decree emptying "the prisons and jails of anyone awaiting trial or serving time for a drug conviction," the number of people behind bars would be reduced from about 2.3 million to 1.8 million, "a significant reduction ... but hardly on the scale that would end mass incarceration."

The main problem, writes Mauer, "is that we have come to rely on the criminal justice system as our primary approach to social problems, particularly in low-income communities of color." The war on drugs, has disproportionally impacted "mostly low-income people of color with little access to treatment," has decimated minority communities.

Mauer and Jones take readers through the salient history of American criminal justice history: from the late 18th century system when imprisonment replaced corporal and other punishments, to the creation of the penitentiary system at the turn of the 19th century; from "the social upheavals of the 1960s [which] produced a prison reform movement," to the rise of "tough on crime" advocates -- supported by the Nixon administration's "law and order" refrain -- when most states adopted harsh mandatory sentencing laws.

It was the Reagan Administration's pursuit of the already extant "War on Drugs" that drove "unprecedented expansion" of incarceration rates: "Money flowed into federal drug agencies .... [while]12 new regional drug task forces were staffed by 1,000 new agents and prosecutors.... [and] The rise in drug prosecutions was far greater than any rise in drug offenses."

When U.S. Attorney General William Barr "left office, the Reagan/[George H.W.] Bush agenda" resulted in a 521% increase of "spending on corrections."

Race to Incarceration; A Graphic Retelling also takes readers through the Clinton and Bush years when politicians of all parties embraced tough on crime positions and there was "a surge of media coverage of random violent crime," and spending on punishment far outpaced spending for rehabilitation or prevention.  

Mauer and Jones are convinced that there is a path to reform: "Even as the prison system mushroomed, alternatives to incarceration have been developed," including providing re-entry services and supervision in the community, creating a path to successful community re-integration through eliminating the barriers to employment of convicted felons and the stripping away of voting rights, building support for community policing, "restorative justice," mandatory sentencing and drug policy reform, and community based prevention and treatment programs.

(Photo: The New Press)

Support Truthout's mission. "Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling" is yours with a minimum donation to Truthout of $25 (which includes shipping and handling) or a monthly donation of $15.