Truth, Justice, and the American Way
Writing this column on Juneteenth, I am reminded of Bryan Stevenson’s fabulous 2014 book Just Mercy. In it, he observes that “Capital punishment means, ‘them without capital get the punishment’…” Stevenson ends the description of his first experience with prisoners on Georgia’s death row with this musing, “My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system, that maybe we treat some people unfairly.” Well, folks, this is the understatement of the century. The truth is that our criminal justice system is racist from top to bottom. And, the cost to our society is tremendous.
America is by far the most punitive nation in the world. Today we have the highest rates of incarceration in the world – at least three to seven times higher than most other advanced economies, and 20 times higher than some. Currently, the United States with only five percent of the world’s population houses more than one half the global prison population. And huge numbers of those in prison are there for offences that would provoke fines, or alternative punishments at worst in most other developed countries. Writing a bad check, committing a petty theft, or being caught with a small amount of marijuana can lead to years or a lifetime in prison. Three strikes and you’re out! No hope of parole. Retribution and punishment dominate; education and rehabilitation are politically unpopular. We’d rather spend billions of dollars subsidizing the private prison industry putting people in prison for the rest of their lives, than investing a fraction of those tax dollars on the human potential trapped under individual trauma and societal breakdown as an alternative to our penal system.
This tremendous increase in our prison population is due to increasingly punitive systemic changes in our criminal justice system over the past five decades. In 1970 there were 300,000 Americans behind bars. Now that number is over 2.3 million – that’s a 760 percent increase! This doesn’t even count the close to five million people who are on probation or parole. That’s 7,300,000 people, or four percent of our entire adult population is under correctional supervision. In some states (Georgia) that number rises to approximately ten percent. These numbers are even more staggering when race is taken into consideration: African-Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than White Americans. African-Americans make up 40 percent of those in prison and 30 percent of those on parole or probation but just 13 percent of the U.S. adult population. Another common statistic you’ve likely heard: one of every three Black boys born in this century is likely to spend time behind bars. The flip side of that statistic: Only one in five Black boys is likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Make no doubt about it, being convicted of a crime has a lasting impact on a person’s life – it makes it harder to get a job, it makes it harder to find a place to live. In many cases it results in a person being barred, sometimes for life, from receiving food stamps or any form of public assistance, or from living in public housing – even if that’s where everyone else you know lives. And in many states, being convicted of a crime means losing your right to vote, even after you have fully paid your debt to society. In several Southern states, disenfranchisement of African-American men is higher now than at any time since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
There are additional aspects that underscore the problem with the American style justice system. But we should start by talking about what we can, and should do to begin fixing this broken, immoral, and in some cases unlawful criminal justice system.
1. Get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing. Let judges judge what is best for the individual as well as for society after hearing all the evidence. Sentencing guidelines can be useful but mandatory sentences eliminate the scales of justice in favor of just locking more folks up. Diversion could better serve their situation (e.g. drug addiction), and the cost to the individual and to society is far greater by incarcerating. At a minimum we must get rid of “three strikes” types of laws in the 28 states and the Federal government where they still exist. There is some movement on this in California lately, but we have a far way to go.
2. Invest in schools, teachers, libraries, community development programs, mental health and wellness in distressed communities (give social support BEFORE incarcerating) and thereby end the school-to-prison pipeline! This use of civilian resources as an alternative to policing is what folks mean when they talk about “defunding” police. It isn’t that anyone wants to eliminate police, but we do need to begin using better trained, less confrontational, and less violent means to help create community safety. The police should not be expected to do everything when so many current police functions could be handled more humanely and far more inexpensively than heavily armed police.
The linkage between education, or a lack thereof, and incarceration is powerful. Instead of incarceration, which diminishes economic prospects, public investments in employment assistance, education and vocational training, and financial assistance would help mediate the conditions that lead marginalized individuals to police contact in the first place. This is just a smart investment decision.
According to the US Department of Education: “If our states and localities took just half the people convicted of nonviolent crimes and found paths for them other than incarceration, they would save upwards of $15 billion a year.”
3. We must redefine drug addiction and drug use: not as a criminal offence, but as a public/mental health issue, better treated with counselling, addiction treatment, out-patient, and harm reduction programs.
4. We have to restore voting rights to those who are done serving their time. We need to start treating former felons as former and fully restore their civil rights so they can be fully reintegrated into society.
Even individuals charged with misdemeanors or violations often end up incarcerated, creating disastrous long-term consequences for the individual and society at large. Rather than investing in public health and community-driven safety initiatives, cities and counties are still pouring vast amounts of public resources into the processing and punishment of these minor offences. The societal cost of this approach is insanely expensive. It’s time to reform our approach not only to policing, but to the entire spectrum of criminal justice. It is time to reduce our society’s use of incarceration, reimagine justice and create a more productive society. This how we can enjoy Truth, Justice, and the American Way. However we approach it, we must bring sanity to the criminal justice system that is destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and bankrupting the rest of us to pay for the broken distortion of what passes for criminal justice today.