In the second chapter, Michelle Alexander uses the War on Drugs to demonstrate the rot and weaknesses in the American criminal justice system. From the onset, Alexander debunks the made-for-TV criminal justice system myth by outlining the harsh realities on the ground, such as the incapacity of the system to conduct full-blown trials of guilt or innocence, acceptance of plea bargains to avoid severe mandatory sentences and unjustified police searches in the name of fighting drugs. The author is clear that the “system of mass incarceration” is fuelled by drug-related convictions that have contributed substantially to the rise in incarceration rates in the country. Although the War on Drugs appears overfunded and overstaffed, it is unable to rid the country of big-time drug dealers or address the issue of dangerous drugs.
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Alexander decries how the War on Drugs has diluted the benefits provided by the Fourth Amendment by giving law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to make arbitrary searches and arrests, resulting in the incarceration of millions of American citizens for nonviolent drug transgressions. The Supreme Court is put in the spotlight for aiding the police in conducting unjustified searches and seizures. Americans no longer enjoy the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution because law enforcement agencies have been given powers to conduct mandatory drug testing and wiretap phone calls regardless of confidentiality considerations. Alexander underscores how the police use unreasonable suspicion and poor excuses to conduct drug searches on innocent people while drug lords walk free. If caught with small quantities of marijuana, these people face severe jail terms due to the abolition of judicial discretion through mandatory sentencing laws. The result is that minor offenders and innocent people end up acquiring the “prison label” due to wanton deficiencies in the criminal justice system.
I agree with Alexander’s observation that law enforcement agencies have been given a lot of powers that hamper the rights and freedoms of American citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. Although the War on Drugs is embedded in justifiable causes, it is my submission that such justifications should not be used to harass citizens in the stop-and-search campaigns. Additionally, the author’s argument on plea bargains makes a lot of sense because an effective criminal justice system should have systems that ensure justice for offenders, instead of relying on plea bargains to win convictions. A plea bargain, in my view, does not serve the interests of justice because people may agree to plea to the charges due to pressure or fear of being convicted. I also agree with Alexander’s assertion that the criminal justice system deals with the symptoms rather than the problem. Although the system is keen on convicting small-time drug users, it lacks the capacity to deal with drug lords who are responsible for supplying the drugs.
The most important aspect that can be taken from the reading is how the criminal justice system continues to play an active role in limiting people’s rights and freedoms instead of safeguarding them. In the example of drugs, it is clear that most Supreme Court rulings have justified the use of untenable reasons by law enforcement agencies to search people and make arrests. This predisposition is dangerous as it goes against the laws of natural justice and contributes substantially to the “hardening” of innocent people through prison labeling. The information has provided me with useful insights on how the criminal justice system can be remodeled to achieve effectiveness in the dispensation of its mandate. A good starting point would be to lobby Congress to enact laws and regulations that will ensure people are not profiled based on unreasonable suspicions and poor excuses.