The 1960s and 1970s were a period of rebellion and change in the United States. In high school, I spent the most time learning about the Civil Rights Movement. This chronology was relatively simplistic: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks protested, and then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision was made. The truth is, the Civil Rights injustices carried into the 1970s and onward. Notably, mass incarceration and mistreatment of prisoners became a fundamental political issue in the early 1970s. These injustices became widely recognized following the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971, which resulted in the deaths of ten hostages and twenty-nine inmates. Rather than addressing the legitimate concerns of the prisoners that led them to riot, Governor Rockefeller instituted harsher penalties for violating prison rules. Rockefeller’s response to riots over injustice and racism in New York remained consistent when, two years later, he signed the “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” which served as the model for “War on Drugs” legislation that would be used to incarcerate millions of people, mostly African American men, in the coming decades. The War on Drugs and the War on Poverty were the results of politicians exploiting soft issues to criminalize poverty and drug use rather than fighting to fix the broken institutions that perpetuate the problems. The disparities in enforcement are evident when comparing two different types of theft:
In 1969, there were 502 convictions for tax fraud. Such cases, called “white-collar crimes,” usually involve people with a good deal of money. Of those convicted, 20 percent ended up in jail. The fraud averaged $190,000 per case; their sentences averaged seven months. That same year, for burglary and auto theft (crimes of the poor) 60 percent ended up in prison. The auto thefts averaged $992; the sentences averaged eighteen months. The burglaries averaged $321; the sentences averaged thirty-three months. (10557)
While Zinn’s chapter ends in the 1970s, the problems he raises with the criminal justice system still persist today. Look to the opioid crisis to see politicians ignoring serious health concerns rooted in drug use. With the war on crime, broken window policing, stop-and-frisk policies, and marijuana laws continue to run rampant in cities across the country contributing to a prison system that includes more drug abusers than rehabilitation facilities and incarcerates one in three black men at some points in their lives.