The Criminal Injustice System in the United States
When we consider the truth, that The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet has more than 25% of its prisoners, it does not sound right to any of us. How do we hold ourselves out to be the standard of justice and freedom in that statistical quagmire? How did we get to this point – and how do we get to a better place?
Like all complex problems the answers are not simple. Somewhere we forgot to notice what we were doing to ourselves. Fear seeped through the cracks in our societal confidence and we began to legislate in reaction to our fears instead of legislating in support of our inherent Constitutional equality. Our government began to work for the powerful elements in our society against the powerless among us. Privilege was given preference over those without privilege. It became more important to protect those with privilege from the real needs of the poor.
The operation of the justice delivery system became an expensive bidding war. Those with more money could afford more justice than the rest of us. The result was the imprisonment of the poor. Law enforcement translated that largely into race: Poor = Black and Hispanic in various parts of the country when applied to the “War on Drugs.” That made it easy for racial, ethnic and class disparities in courts and prisons. Another complication was every session of every state’s legislature adopted the philosophy that the solution to every problem was to craft a new criminal law or enhance the punishment of an existing law. The police powers of every state, local and even the nation itself became more like those in a different form of government than the democratic republic we hold ourselves out to be.
But even with the racial angle, we should remember a little-noticed fact is that so-called “white trash,” poor whites, were and are targeted too, that the most vulnerable men are usually men who grew up without fathers in the home, and that while it was once an industry that depended on poor minorities, now it just depends on locking up men in general. In hindsight we could say we should have cared about all this sooner, but the bottom line is if you’re interested in the welfare of men and boys, then the prison-industrial complex in the US should be something you give a damn about.
We have too many men (and yes, some women) locked up, for too little reason, for too much time, it’s not working and we cannot afford it.
Those we send to prison come out less able to live in our neighborhoods than before they went in. Locking people up for drug use and possession in a very Pavlovian sense only conditions them into associating freedom with access to drugs and/or alcohol. Prisons become revolving doors of high rates of recidivism and the few that do not return to prison have limited opportunity to earn a living for their families and are foreclosed from much of the housing and almost all of the public assistance afforded others.
Treatment for drug users works much better and is much less expensive. The same can be said of those who steal. Probation is far more successful than imprisonment. Most theft is driven by poverty and if we hope to reduce the incidence of theft, we could perhaps create jobs convenient to those who need them.
The sole purpose of prisons should be to contain those who would do others harm. We can no longer afford to lock up those we do not like. All sentences in almost all states reflect our desire to “get even” and not any notion of an effort to rehabilitate. We should devote the time in prison to training and education not to slave labor and warehousing inmates to deteriorate in our custody.
We should open the institutions up so they are not isolated from a normal society. How do inmates learn to live in a normal world if we cage them in a contained predatory and aberrant society? There are ghettos, barrios, and trailer parks out here where the residents have adopted the social norms of prisons because those places are the only places former inmates can return to.
Prisons too are warehouses for those with treatable mental and emotional problems. If anyone behaves differently, we tend to want to get them out of sight so naturally we send these most vulnerable people to institutions designed to abuse them randomly. It would actually be less expensive to build and staff institutions that could treat their disabilities but we would rather punish them for being different than help them get better.
Under the rubric of the “War on Drugs” the whole idea of mandatory minimum sentencing was created and became a fad fashion in legislative art. Every act that could be criminalized could be enhanced and improved with a fresh set of mandatory minimum sentences. It was madness, rhetorical revenge. It sounded good at the time but made no sense in application.
The new fad fashion is electronic imprisonment. Ankle monitors, sex offender registration and variations on that theme. It seems easy to let the electronics do the work so we write those laws with such a wide brush that we waste energy watching those who are a danger to no one. The consistent reports from those whose job it is to do this supervision is they could easily supervise those who may need watching but their case loads are such that any careful supervision is not possible.
So, what do we do? We start with a serious effort to undo what we have done wrong over the last four decades. We start by bringing the War on Drugs to an end. We reexamine all the legislation that passed to build and enhance that war, removing much of it from the books entirely. We look at the rest of criminal law for things that have hurt more than helped and eliminate or recompose those sections with the objective less imprisonment and more solving the problem or its underlying causes. We restore mental and emotional problems including sexual laws and drug addiction to a treatment model to correct harmful behavior more effectively.
We tell the private prison business to stop planning to make more profit from locking people up in their warehouses and invest in treatment modules that better suit the new thinking.
Most importantly, we as a society must deal with our racism, ethnic prejudices and class divisions. We can live in a better and safer world, if we all decide one is worth the effort.
My name is Deborah Kendrick, and I am a Prisoner Advocate, an Anti Death Penalty Activist, and a Pro Male Activist
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