[Pnews] Recent criminal justice reforms contain the seeds of a frightening system of “e-carceration.”

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Nov 9 09:54:47 EST 2018


*Recent criminal justice reforms contain the seeds of a frightening 
system of “e-carceration.”*

Nov. 8, 2018 - By Michelle Alexander 

In the midterms, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to 
legalize marijuana, Florida restored the vote to over 1.4 million people 
with felony convictions, and Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment 
requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials. These are the latest 
examples of the astonishing progress that has been made in the last 
several years on a wide range of criminal justice issues. Since 2010, 
when I published “The New Jim Crow” — which argued that a system of 
legal discrimination and segregation had been born again in this country 
because of the war on drugs and mass incarceration — there have been 
significant changes to drug policy, sentencing and re-entry, including 
“ban the box 
initiatives aimed at eliminating barriers to employment for formerly 
incarcerated people.

This progress is unquestionably good news, but there are warning signs 
blinking brightly. Many of the current reform efforts contain the seeds 
of the next generation of racial and social control, a system of 
“e-carceration” that may prove more dangerous and more difficult to 
challenge than the one we hope to leave behind.

Bail reform is a case in point. Thanks in part to new laws and policies 
— as well as actions like the mass bailout 
of inmates in New York City jails that’s underway — the unconscionable 
practice of cash bail is finally coming to an end. In August, California 
became the first state to decide to get rid of its cash bail system; 
last year 
New Jersey virtually eliminated the use of money bonds.

But what’s taking the place of cash bail may prove even worse in the 
long run. In California, a presumption of detention 
will effectively replace eligibility for immediate release when the new 
law takes effect in October 2019. And increasingly, computer algorithms 
are helping to determine who should be caged and who should be set 
“free.” Freedom — even when it’s granted, it turns out — isn’t really free.

Under new policies in California, New Jersey, New York and beyond, “risk 
assessment” algorithms recommend to judges whether a person who’s been 
arrested should be released. These advanced mathematical models — or 
“weapons of math destruction” as data scientist Cathy O’Neil calls them 
— appear colorblind on the surface but they are based on factors that 
are not only highly correlated with race and class, but are also 
significantly influenced by pervasive bias in the criminal justice system.

As O’Neil explains, “It’s tempting to believe that computers will be 
neutral and objective, but algorithms are nothing more than opinions 
embedded in mathematics.”

Challenging these biased algorithms may be more difficult than 
challenging discrimination by the police, prosecutors and judges. Many 
algorithms are fiercely guarded corporate secrets. Those that are 
transparent — you can actually read the code — lack a public audit so 
it’s impossible to know how much more often they fail for people of color.

Even if you’re lucky enough to be set “free” from a brick-and-mortar 
jail thanks to a computer algorithm, an expensive monitoring device 
likely will be shackled to your ankle — a GPS tracking device provided 
by a private company that may charge you around $300 per month, an 
involuntary leasing fee. Your permitted zones of movement may make it 
difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, care for 
your kids or visit family members. You’re effectively sentenced to an 
open-air digital prison, one that may not extend beyond your house, your 
block or your neighborhood. One false step (or one malfunction of the 
GPS tracking device) will bring cops to your front door, your workplace, 
or wherever they find you and snatch you right back to jail.

Who benefits from this? Private corporations. According to a report 
released last month 
by *t*he Center for Media Justice, four large corporations — including 
the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies — have most 
of the private contracts to provide electronic monitoring for people on 
parole in some 30 states, giving them a combined annual revenue of more 
than $200 million just for e-monitoring. Companies that earned millions 
on contracts to run or serve prisons have, in an era of prison 
restructuring, begun to shift their business model to add electronic 
surveillance and monitoring of the same population. Even if 
old-fashioned prisons fade away, the profit margins of these companies 
will widen so long as growing numbers of people find themselves subject 
to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring and control.

Who loses? Nearly everyone. A recent analysis 
by a Brookings Institution fellow found that “efforts to reduce 
recidivism through intensive supervision are not working.” Reducing the 
requirements and burdens of community supervision, so that people can 
more easily hold jobs, care for children and escape the stigma of 
criminality “would be a good first step toward breaking the vicious 
incarceration cycle,” the report said.

Many reformers rightly point out that an ankle bracelet is preferable to 
a prison cell. Yet I find it difficult to call this progress. As I see 
it, digital prisons are to mass incarceration what Jim Crow was to slavery.

If you asked slaves if they would rather live with their families and 
raise their own children, albeit subject to “whites only signs,” legal 
discrimination and Jim Crow segregation, they’d almost certainly say: 
I’ll take Jim Crow. By the same token, if you ask prisoners whether 
they’d rather live with their families and raise their children, albeit 
with nearly constant digital surveillance and monitoring, they’d almost 
certainly say: I’ll take the electronic monitor. I would too. But 
hopefully we can now see that Jim Crow was a less restrictive form of 
racial and social control, not a real alternative to racial caste 
systems. Similarly, if the goal is to end mass incarceration and mass 
criminalization, digital prisons are not an answer. They’re just another 
way of posing the question.

Some insist that e-carceration is “a step in the right direction.” But 
where are we going with this? A growing number of scholars and activists 
predict that “e-gentrification” is where we’re headed as entire 
communities become trapped in digital prisons that keep them locked out 
of neighborhoods where jobs and opportunity can be found.

If that scenario sounds far-fetched, keep in mind that mass 
incarceration itself was unimaginable just 40 years ago and that it was 
born partly out of well-intentioned reforms — chief among them mandatory 
sentencing laws that liberal proponents predicted would reduce racial 
disparities in sentencing. While those laws may have looked good on 
paper, they were passed within a political climate that was 
overwhelmingly hostile and punitive toward poor people and people of 
color, resulting in a prison-building boom, an increase in racial and 
class disparities in sentencing, and a quintupling of the incarcerated 

Fortunately, a growing number of advocates are organizing to ensure that 
important reforms, such as ending cash bail, are not replaced with 
systems that view poor people and people of color as little more than 
commodities to be bought, sold, evaluated and managed for profit. In 
July, more than 100 civil rights, faith, labor, legal and data science 
groups released a shared statement of concerns 
regarding the use of pretrial risk assessment instruments; numerous bail 
reform groups, such as Chicago Community Bond Fund, 
<https://www.chicagobond.org/> actively oppose the expansion of 

If our goal is /not/ a better system of mass criminalization, but 
instead the creation of safe, caring, thriving communities, then we 
ought to be heavily investing in quality schools, job creation, drug 
treatment and mental health care in the least advantaged communities 
rather than pouring billions into their high-tech management and 
control. Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned 
that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights 
are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, 
extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” We 
failed to heed his warning back then. Will we make a different choice today?

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Michelle Alexander became a New York Times columnist in 2018. She is a 
civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar and author of “The New 
Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

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