Chapter 2: "The Lockdown" Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208

Alexander introduces the chapter with a rumination on the discrepancy between how the American criminal justice system is portrayed on television and the grim realities of how this system victimizes and subjugates people of color.

Alexander explicitly states that the rest of the chapter will focus on the particularly devastating...

(The entire section contains 1208 words.)

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Alexander introduces the chapter with a rumination on the discrepancy between how the American criminal justice system is portrayed on television and the grim realities of how this system victimizes and subjugates people of color.

Alexander explicitly states that the rest of the chapter will focus on the particularly devastating effects of the War on Drugs, which she identifies as the primary contributor to mass incarceration. Citing the nearly half-million inmates who are imprisoned for drug-related offenses, Alexander explains how the government’s strategy of addressing drug crime is the easiest method by which to enforce a racial caste system.

Before tracing the development of the War on Drugs, Alexander addresses common misconceptions about its goals and results: Although convictions for drug-related crimes have dramatically increased, marijuana convictions account for the greatest percentage, and many convictions are for non-violent offenses like possession. With the dramatic increase in drug convictions after 1980 came a prison industry boom, and private corporations have since made millions creating facilities to accommodate the ever-growing inmate population.

Alexander explains how, over time, the protections of the Fourth Amendment—which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures—have been eroded in relation to drug crimes. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court began upholding exceptions to the Fourth Amendment when law enforcement seized evidence without a warrant, provided that evidence led to a drug conviction. A variety of invasive drug prevention and detection measures have received judicial approval in recent years, including random drug testing for students or employees and random searches of personal property while on the premises of government facilities. Alexander argues that these erosions of civil liberties and privacy give law enforcement free rein to question and detain suspected drug users anytime, anywhere.

Suspicion of drug use is what allows law enforcement to target people of color. Exceptions like the “stop-and-frisk” rule allow police to search anyone they might suspect of engaging in criminal activity without obtaining a warrant first. Many civilians are unaware that they do not have to consent to random police searches, and as a result, most people give tacit permission to be searched, which sometimes results in the discovery of drugs. In the case Florida v. Bostick, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police searched his bag while aboard an interstate Greyhound bus. The Supreme Court decision states that as long as consent is provided, any incriminating evidence discovered during a random search is admissible in court, since any “reasonable” person would feel free to decline police requests to search his or her belongings.

In addition to consent searches, law enforcement are allowed to use pretexts in order to search civilians for drugs. This means that an officer can stop a motorist for a presumed traffic violation, even if his or her true intention is to check whether said motorist is in possession of illegal drugs. In Ohio v. Robinette, the Supreme Court ruled that police are not required to inform motorists during a pretext search that they are not required to consent, though, as Alexander notes, during a traffic stop in which they are already in perceived trouble with law enforcement, most people are unaware of their right to refuse.

Even the right to refuse searches has limits, leaving people of color largely at the mercy of law enforcement during pretext searches. Other Supreme Court rulings have granted officers the power to arrest motorists for minor traffic violations if they do not consent to officers’ request to search their vehicles—even if the only penalty for said violation is a fine. The myriad erosions of the Fourth Amendment have encouraged law enforcement to use these tactics to conduct volume drug sweeps on highways across the country. However, upwards of ninety-five percent of these searches result in zero discovery.

Alexander then shifts to a discussion of why police departments would have made enforcement of low-level drug crimes a priority in the first place, as drug use was declining nationally at the time. She reveals that, starting during the Reagan administration, state and local law enforcement agencies received cash awards for making drug crime a top priority in their precincts. Besides federal aid, agencies also began competing for access to equipment and weapons to prepare their officers for increasingly-militaristic operations. With access to such resources, agencies in cities across the country formed specialized paramilitary units aimed at combating drug crime. These SWAT teams are often responsible for serving narcotics warrants or conducting drug raids in dramatic fashion with flash-bang grenades and riot shields. Alexander notes that these violent incidents often result in injury or death—even for innocent bystanders. 

Alexander calls this shift in law enforcement “military policing,” in which officers conduct drug operations as literal battles. Further incentivizing this militarization in the name of the drug war are a series of laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize cash and property believed to have been involved in or paid for with drug activity—even if no criminal charges are ever filed. The majority of the funds earned through asset forfeitures can legally be kept by local police, who can put it toward their budget. This gives law enforcement a financial incentive to maintain the drug war rather than focus on actually resolving alleged drug crime.

Alexander then discusses what often happens to people of color who find themselves arrested for a drug-related crime. Despite public perception that defense attorneys for the indigent are plentiful, many defendants must wait in jail for extended time before ever meeting with a lawyer. Even if the attorneys are available, many states have extremely restrictive criteria that make it difficult for defendants to even qualify for public defense. More than any other kind of criminal activity, drug charges are most often resolved using plea-bargaining, a tactic in which a defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. Many defendants fear the harsh mandatory minimums imposed on drug crimes, and this motivates them to plead guilty even if they are, in fact, innocent. 

Many states including California have “three strike” laws, which state that anyone convicted of three felonies must receive sentences of twenty-five years to life. Alexander cites several instances in which courts have upheld lengthy mandatory sentences of individuals for minor crimes—like videotape theft—that technically count as a “third strike.” Judges cannot use discretion to sentence in cases involving mandatory minimums, and many judges have spoken out against the overly harsh sentences they have been forced to hand out to low-level drug offenders.

Alexander argues that these felony convictions trap individuals in a cycle of incarceration, as felons are subjected to increased surveillance and parole restrictions once they are released from prison. Even simple parole violations, such as missing a meeting with one’s designated worker, can result in arrest and a return to jail. In fact, more than one third of prison admissions are parole violators. Thus, Alexander claims, the criminal justice system, by design, produces lifelong criminals. Alexander notes that society also contributes to this phenomenon by stigmatizing felons, which makes it difficult for them to successfully reintegrate after prison. As a result, mass incarceration creates a permanently disadvantaged, racialized undercaste.

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Chapter 1: "The Rebirth of Caste" Summary

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Chapter 3: "The Color of Justice" Summary