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New Jim Crow Lesson 6

The War on Drugs—Mechanisms and Effects

Hello and welcome to Lesson 6 of the Teach Tolerance Lesson Plan for the New Jim Crow. Michelle Alexander was inspired to write The New Jim Crow while working as a civil rights lawyer at the ACLU, and you can read her interview with Teaching Tolerance : A Conversation with Michelle Alexander .

Essential Question

  • How does our criminal justice system fuel and perpetuate mass incarceration? 

Tier II and III Vocabulary

  • Civil liberties– freedom from arbitrary governmental interference, the state of being subject only to laws established for the good of the community, especially with regard to freedom of action and speech
  • Coerce – persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threat
  • Conviction – a formal declaration that someone is guilty of a criminal offense, made by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in a court of law
  • Felon a person who has been convicted of a felony
  • Felony – A serious crime, characterized under federal law and many state statutes as any offense punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. Crimes classified as felonies include, among others, Treason, Arson, Murder, Rape, Robbery, Burglary, Manslaughter, and Kidnapping. (AS IN: Offenses dangerously more serious than smoking a joint or suffering from addiction from opoids/heroin/crack )
  • Pariah – a member of a low caste, an outcast
  • Parole – The release of a prisoner temporarily (for a special purpose) or permanently before the completion of a sentence, on the promise of good behavior
  • Plea bargain – an arrangement between a prosecutor and a defendant whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in the expectation of leniency
  • Pretext – An act in which an illegal stop is perpetuated under the guise of false violations
  • Probable cause – a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by evidence
  • Probation the release of an offender from detention, subject to a period of good behavior under supervision:
  • Stop and Frisk-  A brief, non-intrusive, police stop of a suspect without probable cause which led to racial profiling
  • Surveillance – close observation, constant watch
  • Three Strikes – Laws that require a person guilty of committing both a severe violent felony and two other previous convictions to serve a mandatory life sentence in prison. 
  • Warrant a document issued by a legal or government official authorizing the police or some other body to make an arrest, search premises, or carry out some other action relating to the administration of justice
  • Wiretappingthe practice of connecting a listening device to a telephone line to secretly monitor a conversation

Warm Up

Exercise 1: Video; Contrary to the “crack babies” scare of the 1980s, a 2013 study shows no major long-term ill effects from prenatal cocaine exposure. This clip discusses the current findings and the sensationalized media coverage of crack in the 1980s.

Video: Study Says ‘Crack Baby’ Epidemic of the ’80s Was Overblown
Newsy Science. “Study Says ‘Crack Baby’ Epidemic of the ‘80s Was Overblown.” YouTube video, 2:43. May 27, 2013. 
Video: Vintage AD PSAs from the 1980’s War on Drugs

IxAMxABU. “Vintage Ads PSAs 1980’s Drugs.” YouTube video, 7:02. November 14, 2010.

Exercise 2: Before we get started or into the chapter consider the last  lessons and our last guided readings. In your head , or if you want to write it down and later participate in the comments – complete the following prompts “Something I know … ,”   “Something I believe … ” and “Something I wonder … ” about each of the following (totaling nine responses):

  1. the criminal justice system
  2. the prison system
  3. the War on Drugs

Chapter 2 Part 1

Exercise 1 : This is a bit different and people, or parents participating in this lesson may want to encourage their child to try the worksheet : The Anticipation Guide includes a list of statements that you are encouraged to engage with before reading the excerpt. It may help if you note your gut responses and beliefs in the first column.

Exercise 2 : This lesson focuses on the excerpt “The Lockdown”, in which Alexander discusses Mass incarceration fueled by a highly funded and minimally constrained criminal justice system that traps people branded as “criminals,” even individuals without a criminal record, into a permanent undercaste. Excerpt here : “The Lockdown” , while we are reading consider the following…

  1. What is the public perception of the criminal justice system (including common misperceptions) and the reality of law enforcement practices in the War on Drugs? Compare and Contrast.  
  2. What specific aspects of the criminal justice system undermine civil liberties?
  3. In what ways have the state and federal governments have strengthened the power of law enforcement agencies since the 1980s?
  4. How would you evaluate the degree of justice and fairness delivered by our current criminal justice system as it pertains to drug-related offenses?

Guided Reading : Lesson 6

Guided Reading Critical Thinking Questions :


Exercise 3: Return to your warm-up “I know … , I wonder … , I believe … ” responses and respond. 

  1. Has anything you thought you knew changed? Explain.
  2. Have any of your beliefs changed? Explain.
  3. Were any of the things you wondered about answered? Explain.
  4. What new questions do you have?

Full Audio : Chapter 2

1. Marc Mauer and Ryan King, A 25-Year Quagmire: The “War on Drugs” and Its Impact on American Society (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2007), 3.
2. Testimony of Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, Prepared for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, 111th Cong., Hearing on Unfairness in Federal Cocaine Sentencing: Is It Time to Crack the 100 to 1 Disparity? May 21, 2009, 2.
3. Mauer and King, A 25-Year Quagmire , 2–3.
4. Ibid.; and Ryan King and Marc Mauer, The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s (New York: Sentencing Project, 2005), documenting the dramatic increase in marijuana arrests. Marijuana is a relatively harmless drug. The 1988 surgeon general’s report lists tobacco as a more dangerous drug than marijuana, and Francis Young, an administrative law judge for the Drug Enforcement Administration found there are no credible medical reports to suggest that consuming marijuana, in any dose, has ever caused a single death. U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Opinion and Recommended Ruling, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decision of Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young, in the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition, Docket no. 86-22, Sept. 6, 1988, 56–57. By comparison, tobacco kills roughly 390,000 Americans annually, and alcohol is responsible for some 150,000 U.S. deaths a year. See Doug Bandow, “War on Drugs or War on America?” Stanford Law and Policy Review 3: 242, 245 (1991).
5. Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009).
6. Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968).
7. Ibid., Douglas J., dissenting.
8. See U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Operations Pipeline and Convoy (Washington, DC, n.d.),
9. State v. Rutherford, 93 Ohio App.3d 586, 593–95, 639 N.E. 2d 498, 503–4,
n. 3 (Ohio Ct. App. 1994).
10. Gary Webb, “Driving While Black,” Esquire , Apr. 1, 1999, 122.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., 8–9.
13. Christopher J. Mumola and Jennifer C. Karberg, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006); and Ashley Nellis, Judy Greene, and Marc
Mauer, Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers , 2d ed. (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, 2008), 8.
14. Harmelin v. Michigan , 501 U.S. 967 (1991).
15 PEW Center for the States, One in 31.
16. Jeremy Travis, But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2002), 32, citing Bureau of Justice Statistics.