The new Netflix drama Orange is the New Black allowed viewers to experience prison from the view point of a privileged, somewhat of a yuppie, blonde and succeeded in not making it all about our protagonist Piper Chapman. We learn early on in the series that Piper is serving a 15 month sentence for past drug laundering, Piper plead guilty and accepted a deal of 15 months rather than risk the mandatory minimum of five years.
*the rest of the post contains spoilers for main plot points of OITNB*
Today Eric Holder the U.S. Attorney General announced at an American Bar Association speech in San Francisco that the justice department will try to avoid charging low-level and non-violent drug offenders with charges that carry a mandatory minimum. Holder’s overall “Smart on Crime” plan will aim to reduce the U.S. prison population. “Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder explained. “However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem, rather than alleviate it.”
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, incarceration rates in the U.S have almost quadrupled in the last thirty years while actual crime rates have fluctuated and are currently at historical lows. The majority of this incarceration increase is due to the “War on Drugs” which has cost more in taxpayer money than the actual War on Terror and has done very little if anything at all to curb actual drug use and trafficking in the United States. Prison does not discourage criminals from committing crime but instead sucks them into a cyclical underworld of imprisonment and crime. Half way through the first season of Orange is the New Black a recurring character Taystee gets paroled for good behavior, however Taystee has no where to live and cannot find employment so returns to prison before the season is even over for violating parole. This tale is all too true and is exacerbated by the mandatory minimums laws in place that keep low-level offenders in the system for way too long.
The Attorney General acknowledging that mandatory minimums are not only useless but that they are only the tip of the broken policy iceberg is a step in the right direction, but it is merely a baby step. Mandatory minimums are still law, as are many of the regulations of the justice system that Michelle Alexander proposes make up a new form of Jim Crow law. The War on Drugs was a ridiculous scheme made popular by President Nixon but has only resulted in the U.S having the highest incarceration rate per population in the developed world. It is time that we reevaluate not only the War on Drugs but our criminal justice system as a whole.