Law Professor Paul Butler Drops Serious Science for the Funny Math of the Prison Population
New policy guidelines will be sent out today by the Justice Department outlining that the federal government is not to arrest medical marijuana users who are in compliance with state laws. That's one small step for marijuana advocates, one huge leap for those of us who know the War on Drugs is like looking for WMDs – the destruction is the war, not the drugs.
In his book, “Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” Award-winning law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler goes in deep on the War on Drugs and how it is a problem that the United States has more people incarcerated for drug crimes than those locked down for all the crimes in the European Union. He uses Hip-Hop to score his view explaining why Jay-Z may refer to your average criminal as a “P.O.W.” and a “winner” (in “Ballad for a Fallen Soldier”), and why if our criminal justice system is not reformed, we have more to lose than just a battle.
Here, he talks to Hip-Hop Wired about why a soldier should keep his head up.
Hip-Hop Wired: In “Let's Get Free...” you also suggest that when individuals are called for jury duty we practice jury nullification – finding someone not guilty of a nonviolent drug offense despite the evidence. It's legal, but is it subversive?
Paul Butler: It's subversive of the present system which needs subversion. Any system that's locking up more people than any criminal justice system in the history of the world needs fundamental change and unfortunately, the politics are that we're not going to get that from our lawmakers unless we insist. So what the strategic nullification does is insist.
It sends us very strong messages, “Well you can have these laws but we're not going to follow them,” which is the same thing that the people who sat in on the lunch counters said... The nice thing about nullification is it's legal so in a sense it's different than that kind of civil disobedience, but what it sends is a message that these laws are about oppressing people and discriminating against people and they should not be enforced.
Hip-Hop Wired: Oppressive and discriminatory, sure, but should we really be surprised that we have the highest rate of incarceration in the history of the free world when this country was founded by people who stole labor and land to build it?
Paul Butler: We have this great moment in American history now where we have an African-American President. So it's true we were founded by people who stole land from Native Americans and then built the land with slaves who were mainly taken from Africa. And those were the same people, including slave holders, who wrote the Constitution and now we have all these Black people who are no longer slaves but who are in prison and so it is easy to be sort of defeated and think well there's just no reason to be hopeful, but then a long comes a guy named Barack Obama... You know, it's just an amazing moment in history. I'm probably more optimistic now than I would've been two years ago that there really is, in spite of all of the baggage that the Constitution carries, it also holds some promise.
Hip-Hop Wired: What can we do to better engage politically the power of the Hip-Hop community?
Paul Butler: What I would love to see happen is for more of the artists to become activists. Now, a lot of times people say, “Well that's not my role, my role is to create art, to make something beautiful or provocative,” but it's not a luxury, the idea of these people using their skills for art only. It's a luxury that I think the Hip-Hop nation can't indulge. Art is also embodied in what you do everyday and what you use everyday and I think that that notion has to become more realized in Hip-Hop.
Yes, you're artists and yes you make beautiful rhymes and you put together dope beats, but your community needs you. People who are getting locked up, people who are hurting other people…they listen to you, that's an extraordinary power. So the question is…Are you going to use that power in a responsible way?
Hip-Hop Wired: Given the debate about Hip-Hop in the mainstream, why did you take such a clear Hip-Hop perspective to address the criminal justice system and to share an idea as serious as jury nullification?
Paul Butler: Because mass incarceration is an extraordinarily serious problem. It's been a problem since the 1980s and people a lot smarter than me have been complaining about how many people we're locking up and those complaints have fallen on deaf ears so I wanted to write a book that a lot of people would read... The title from the dead prez album really communicates to people who know this is a little something different.
Hip-Hop Wired: What does being “free” mean to you?
Paul Butler: In a legal sense, it means that if I'm driving down the street and I see a cop car behind me then my heart doesn't have to start beating fast. I get stressed out. And that's what happens to me now, especially if I don't have on a suit. That's not the kind of society that I want to live in. I want to know that as long as I'm obeying the law, police are going to leave me alone.
Hip-Hop Wired: In your book you outline things legislatively that need to be done – addressing employment, education, and healthcare as ways to reduce the incarceration rates, in addition to individuals taking action such as jury nullification. What else can we do as individuals to get free?
Paul Butler: Helping a kid graduate from high school. If you do that, you make an enormous debt in the prison population because most of the people who are locked up don't have high school diplomas... In the book I wish I talked more about training parents. The good news is we have thousands of people in the community who could teach that because we have thousands of people who have very successfully raised kids and they understand their skills that could be taught that doesn't require Congress to pass a law.
For more information on Paul Butler and “Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” log on to www.letsgetfreethebook.com/.
Check out Hip-Hop Wired's review of “Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice” here.