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Add the Scott Sisters to Mississippi's List of Injustice

Courtesy of New America Media | 12/8/2010, 8:19 a.m.

With the 1960s slayings of Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner long buried in its Jim Crow past, you'd think that Mississippi would be desperate to not add any more names to the list of those who were killed in it - or wronged by it.

And you'd have thought wrong.

That list, it seems, has grown by two more names - Jamie and Gladys Scott. These sisters have been in prison in the Magnolia State for 16 years - doing double consecutive life sentences for their alleged part in a 1993 robbery in which only $11 was taken and no one was hurt.

It bears mentioning that the Scott sisters, who were accused of setting up the robbery and who have maintained their innocence, are the only ones doing hard time here; the three young men who wielded the gun the sisters are accused of providing have long since been released. It also bears mentioning that the Scott sisters had no criminal record before this.

Yet they're languishing in state prison. And while they weren't murdered in Mississippi while fighting for an end to Jim Crow as Evers, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were, much of their life has been stolen by a system that is doing what Jim Crow once did to keep certain groups of people in their place.

In one of the most glaring ways, the imprisonment of the Scott sisters represents a return to a new form of Jim Crow; mass incarceration that disproportionately hurts black people by imposing draconian sentences for minor crimes and does little to ensure fair trials or to exonerate the innocent.

By extension, this gives the system another means to control black people.

I got to thinking about the plight of the Scott sisters while reading Michelle Alexander's excellent book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

At the beginning of the book, Alexander, a civil rights lawyer turned legal scholar, reminds us that as each racial caste system in America ended, other, more insidious forms rose to replace them as a means of keeping the black population under control. First it was slavery, then the black codes, then Jim Crow.

But then came Brown vs. Board of Education, and the civil rights and voting rights acts - and other changes that meant more freedom for black people.

But since the advent of the drug trade and the crime fears that it fed, tough sentences for minor crimes, or non-violent offenses, have morphed into a new means of controlling former subservient populations more than a means of reducing crime, according to Alexander.

"In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt," she writes. "So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind."

Generally, that means denying former felons the right to jobs, or housing, or to vote. But in the case of the Scott sisters, it simply means denying them justice by imposing a punishment that is a thousand times more obscene than the crime they are accused of committing - and hoping that their blackness and the presumptions of guilt that often go along with that will make it so that no one will notice.

It means two fewer black women to compete for jobs, or to vote in a system that benefits from them being voiceless.

Of course, Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, could end this injustice now by pardoning the Scott sisters. Then again, unlike the five other felons he's pardoned or granted clemency to, the sisters haven't been well enough to do odd jobs around the governor's plantation, er, mansion.

It's never been clear why the Scott sisters received the sentences they got. What is clear, though, is that Mississippi, with its past of racial injustice, ought to be looking for ways to avoid reminders of it.

Barbour could do that by freeing the women - one of whom is seriously ill - so that they can salvage what's left of their lives.

The nation, I hope, will be watching.