05/25/2011 06:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011

Michelle Alexander on the Criminal (In)Justice System

A single tear rolled down the cheek of Neill Franklin as he sat onstage wordlessly, in front of hundreds of people at Riverside Church in Harlem last Saturday. Franklin shifted in his chair, visibly uncomfortable, as the room fell silent.

"I am not proud," Franklin said, of his 34-year career in law enforcement. "The War on Drugs put police in a war against our people."

He spoke on a panel to discuss mass incarceration, deemed "America's most inconvenient truth" by Dr. Michelle Alexander. Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is an examination of racial inequality  in America's criminal justice system. The U.S. has an extraordinarily high incarceration rate, with 1 out of every 31 adults incarcerated, on parole or on probation. In some states, like Georgia, that rate is 1 in 13.

Major Franklin spent most of his career as the architect of drug task forces in Baltimore. His firsthand experience enforcing the War on Drugs drove him to leave the force and join the movement to reform the criminal justice system.

He was joined on the panel Saturday by several lawyers and activists, including Dr. Alexander, the keynote speaker and author. She participated in an exclusive interview for 99Problems last week.

Dr. Alexander is a civil rights lawyer who began research for her book as she started recognizing that the criminal justice system that she had been working in, "which appears race-neutral on the surface... is designed to keep poor folks of color locked into a second-class status."

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander makes the case that the movement to crack down on drug use in the 1980s resurrected the racial biases still present after the civil rights movement and provided the blueprint for the war to be waged "almost exclusively in communities of color."

While working on a racial profiling case in California years ago, Alexander met a 19-year-old black man who was slated to be the main plaintiff in her case. Upon his revelation to her that he had a felony record, she refused to represent him, on the basis that the case would be lost because the jury and the media would not take him seriously with a criminal record.

The young man became irate, claiming that he had one felony drug charge and that he was set up by the Oakland Police Department. She was skeptical of his conspiracy theory and told him that he could no longer participate. He stood up and ripped up all of the notes that he had been taking on the case. For Alexander, it was a turning point.

"He said, 'what's to become of me? I can't find housing. I can't get a job. I'm living in my grandmother's basement. I can't even take care of myself as a man. You're no better than the police. The minute I tell you I have a felony, you stop listening," Dr. Alexander said.

Months later, the Oakland Riders scandal broke, revealing that the young man had been a victim of a rogue group of police officers who were actively planting drugs on suspects, particularly people of color. The entrenched injustice of the system came full-circle for her at that very moment.

"How was I actually replicating the very forms of discrimination and exclusion that I was trying to fight against?" she asked herself.

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