Unpacking, Exploring, and Combating The Inequitable Criminal Justice System

A Contextual Roadmap to The Current Injustice Epidemic

When analyzing history, one should notice cruxes, or turning points, within the development of different social contexts and discriminatory spheres of human interactions. It is at these junctions where revolutionaries thrive beyond seemingly accepted societal norms to imagine a more just alternative to whichever ailment is currently impacting the progression of an ideal state of nature. Historical legacies built on the backs of activists like Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Lucretia Mott, and Christine Jorgensen, provide blueprints for modern day change-makers to study and imitate. In this spirit, the following text delves into the different systemic ways in which the criminal justice system, furthermore referred to as CJS, manifests, perpetuates, and intently encourages inequality in The United States. Before continuing, when the CJS system is mentioned, the term is being used in an over-simplified way to represent the different stakeholders, from police officers, to judges, to the warden, who have some interest in keeping the system unequal. While in no way encompassing, the enclosed information provides statistical, situational, and investigative context, through which the reader can climb to their own conclusions about the present state of the CJS and what to do, or not to do, about it. By employing claimsmaking techniques, this literature tackles a mountain in order to create molehills for each individual to feel confident in conquering, and purposeful in their pursuit of reform.

Grounds

Whereas this is not a problem of individual moments, it is unendingly vital to highlight cases in which the CJS has not only failed to be just, but transformed entire lives and communities. By accentuating the names, stories, and situations involved in the CJS, the intensity of the entire breadth of the issue becomes humanized. Here are some examples that epitomize the state of affairs for many Americans today.

Joshua Terrell Crawford was a 25 year old African American when he was killed by the police. At around 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 15th, 2017, Northport police officers responded to a call about a traffic accident with injuries (Robinson, 2017). While driving there, they were told that one of the drivers has walked away from the scene of the crash. They saw Crawford walking about a mile away from the initial incident. Crawford was bleeding profusely from his hands and arms. When the officers approached him, Crawford kept walking and ended up getting blood on the officers face. The officers then attempted to detain him, when struggle ensued, one of the men called for backup. A Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Deputy was nearby and arrived to the area. The Deputy then deployed his taser to gain control over Crawford. When Crawford tried to get away from these men, the Deputy used the drive stun technique to completely immobilize the 25 year old. Several more officers arrived to detain Crawford. The injured and tased man was finally taken to the hospital. He died the next day. The officers were not charged with anything.

Police brutality, which will be discussed further in depth throughout this text, is one of the, if not the, most concerning issues within the inherently unjust CJS. This violence disproportionately affects people of color. Yet, in conversations regarding assault by law enforcement, one group of people are often left out- women, and more specifically women of color. The Center For Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies recently released a text entitled, “Say Her Name.” They tell the stories of countless women of color who have been the victims of an unequal CJS. They share on the heartbreaking death of Michelle Cusseaux, who police shot to death in her home while they were attempting to take her to a mental health facility (Crenshaw, 2015).  Cusseaux, who, according to her mother, had been changing the locks that day, was holding a hammer. Officer Percy Dupra, the one who killed Cusseaux, says that, although she did not say anything to threaten him, “she had that anger in her face like she was going to hit someone with that hammer” (Crenshaw, 2015). The police were aware that Cusseaux suffered from mental illness, yet were not prepared, and ended up killing her instead of providing her with the care she deserved.

This is no longer an anomaly. The CJS is actively manifesting, perpetuating, and encouraging inequality in a manner that has led The United States to an injustice epidemic. Police brutality, mass incarceration, and the supposed “war on drugs,” must now be seen as an instance and a pattern of oppressive misuse of governmental power, and not as a once-in-a-while mishap by good intentioned patriots. Through their words and actions, the CJS has manifested inequality in a way on par with Jim Crow and slavery. Further, in their utter disregard for human lives, the CJS perpetuates an already popular, and fallacious, ideology that certain people are to be systematically disadvantaged. During situations in which certain members in the CJS choose to act discriminatory, or stand idly by as others do, they are encouraging an unequal progression of subjugation and labeling it law and order.

These are not empty assumptions. The aforementioned assertions against the current CJS are not baseless. There are countless, quite literally, statistics which illuminate the ways in which the CJS uses race, gender, money, education, and other facets to police and control specific types of individuals.  According to Mapping Police Violence, an organization dedicated to displaying the stories and statistics about police brutality, law enforcement officials have killed 1,049 in 2017 so far. Black people are three times as likely to be killed by an officer than their white counterparts. From a more gendered perspective, The Cato Institute, an American libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., has found an area of police violence often left out. In their 2010 Annual Report on police misconduct they found that “sexual misconduct was the second most common form of misconduct reported throughout 2010” (Crenshaw, 2015). When this data, although still incredibly limited, was compared to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics, it became clear that, “sexual assault rates are significantly higher for police when compared to the general population” (Crenshaw, 2015).

CJS reform, and police brutality alike, are often seen as part of a more liberal agenda, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, the injustice epidemic ought to concern those who are more fiscally conservative as well. Killing innocent people can be expensive. Instead of fostering a set of guidelines that keeps law enforcement officials accountable, the CJS chooses to pay out families affected by their malpractices, if they do anything at all. The Washington Post reported that Chicago alone has payed out nearly half a billion dollars in settlements over the past decade. Further, as stated in The New York Times, North Dakota law enforcement purchased more than $600,000 worth of body armor, tactical equipment and crowd control devices during the height of protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Education is another socially stratified institution which works hand in hand with the CJS to serve specific individual’s wants over other’s needs. In 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that “40 percent of state prison inmates and 47 percent of jail inmates nationwide have not completed high school,” as compared to 18 percent of the general population (Carroll, 2009). The same communities that suffer from lower school funding are disproportionately subject to unequal enforcement of the law (Bobo and Thompson, 2006).

Unfortunately, the injustice epidemic is only getting worse. From 1880 to 1980, The United States added around 285,000 inmates to prison systems; from 1980 to 2000, 1.1 million inmates were sent to jails/prisons (Bobo and Thompson, 2006). Globally speaking, the rate of incarceration per 100,000 citizens in the U.S. exceeds all other industrialized nations. The ratio spans from 4 to 1 in Mexico, to about 12 to 1 in nations like Sweden and Japan (Bobo and Thompson, 2006). These large increases are often attributed to “The War on Drugs.” Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for CJS reform, explains, “There were 154,361 more offenders sentenced to prison in 1995 than 1985, for an increase of 84 percent. The vast majority of this increase (77 percent) consisted of nonviolent drug and property offenders; drug offenders alone accounted for over half the increase” (Bobo and Thompson, 2006). Between the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a 400 percent increase in the chances of getting sent to prison following a drug arrest (Bobo and Thompson, 2006).

This is not to imply that the CJS has just started to become unequal. Quite the contrary, this text fully acknowledges the deeply ingrained manner in which The United States’ CJS has been racialized and gendered from its inception. As Michelle Alexander insists in her book, The New Jim Crow, “Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable” (Alexander, 2012). In other words, racists will find a way to reduce people of color in whichever institutional manner that is available during the historical moment they are living in. Again, this is not new. Nevertheless, that does not make it any less important. So long as America is a society that values certain lives more than others, there will be a reason to stand up.

Warrants

There exists a common misconception in modern discourse surrounding the CJS that assumes reform to be synonymous with something unconstitutional or otherwise threatening to seemingly traditional American values. This just is not so. In actuality, three of the most cliched American values- Freedom, Equality, and Justice- are persistently jeopardized by the injustice epidemic. The questions, therefore, become: Whose Freedom? Whose Equality? Whose Justice? When the answer is inevitably systematically disadvantaged individuals, a nation must either change what they say their values are, or actually start to value them.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” or so The Constitution of the United States of America states. It appears as if, despite this sentiment, certain individuals seem to have little to freedom in the eyes of the CJS. Where was Americans right to peaceful assembly during the aforementioned Dakota Access Pipeline protests? Where was Trayvon Martin’s freedom to eat skittles and talk to his girlfriend when he was shot to death? Where was the freedom of religion for the student at a Fairfax County Public School who had her hijab pulled off, while the teacher was only put on leave?

On July 4th, 1776, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, otherwise known as The Declaration of Independence, proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All men created equal? All people of color, women, muslims, homosexuals, poverty-stricken, immigrants created equal? If this text may speak hypothetically, as it is a technique which would serve this point well, if this was true, if all humans were, are, and will be seen as equal in the CJS, and The United States of America, then there would be no need to continue this discussion. These words would be empty and the calls to action disregardable. Unfortunately, the systemic inequality present in history has created a situation that warrants a conversation about what equality should look like today, 2017. Due to the lack of a follow through from the words in that famous text, a shift in focus ought to take place from equality to equity. For when a society that has striven on inequality tries to patch its wounds with the same course of action they failed at prior, the consequences can be astronomical. In other words, because of the past, The United States, and the CJS, needs a new cornerstone for the future-equity.

Lastly, and most ironic, justice. The CJS has become an institution which thrives upon the injustice epidemic. The first line of The Constitution promises that, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” If the current CJS is to live by this creed, as would be so intensely desired, then there needs to be justice for: Ramirez Marco, Antonio Hernandez, Dustin Robert Pigeon, Oscar Anaya, Adam Brogdon, Keian Jones, Antonio T. Green, Cornell Lockhart, Calvin Toney, Larry Ruiz-Barreto, Phillip Pitts, Thomas Aikens, John Bazemore III, John Doe, Paul Jones III, Jason Ike, Pero Jarrett, Blakely Varnado, Eddie Patterson, Marlysa Sanchez, Nyung Kyee, Augustus Crawford, Frank Joey Half Jr., Raymond Davis, Jorge Hidalgo, Juan Carlos Gomez, Kalin Jackson, Vincent Jewan Hall, Jesus Birelas-Contreras, Luvelle Kennon, Tymyr Wilson, Dante Holden, Eric Higgs, Baltazar Escaloma-Baez, Danny Sanchez, Lucas De Ford, Jerry Richardson, Timothy Earl Jackson, Antonio Levison, David Campos, Johnny Bonta, Victor Gonzalez, Gonzalez Armando, Frank Dewboy, Lister Jorge Cabrera, Alexander Ochoa, Jamarco McShann, Ezekiel Juan Duran, DeAndre Bethea, Luis David Flores, Eric Garrison, and every other person of color who has been killed by a police officer this year.

Conclusions

The above statistical, situational, and investigative contexts pose the ever important inquiry of, well, what now?

This is a mountain. The injustice epidemic is as wide stretching as it is ingrained in the very rooms that these decisions are being made in. Regardless, there are both attitudinal and legislative actions that can be performed to surmount an ailment that is as old as this nation itself. In “Post-Conflict” Reconstruction, the Crimes of the Powerful and Transitional Justice, they explain, “An increasing call has arisen, often from victim communities as well as scholars, for a framework that can promote structural change that addresses the root causes, ongoing legacies and accountability demands associated with protracted conflict” (Balint, 2017). The subsequent reform suggestions hope to answer that call. In order to do this, both short and long-term solutions must be given to attitudinal and legislative challenges surrounding the much needed reworking of the CJS.

The former, attitudinal, is often more difficult to discern. Until recently, with the induction of Mr. Donald Trump to office, most people who supported the injustice epidemic stayed behind closed doors. That is no longer the case due to the emboldened nature of their president. In the more immediate future, the rhetoric surrounding drugs and the criminalization of people of color must decrease, and hopefully, cease to exist altogether. By continuously labeling black men as deviant and black women as essentially sexual, the CJS advances and legitimates appaling actions towards these groups. On the same accord, using degrading language when describing those who suffer from substance abuse adds to the damaging verbiage that claimed war on an inanimate object, drugs, while actually terrorizing communities of color. Long-term, the way disadvantaged groups, including people of color, women, and those who follow non-westernized religions, view the CJS also needs transforming. Yet this too falls on the desks of those who have made these human actors fear for their lives when confronted with those whose duty it is to serve and protect.

Legislation, on the other hand, often provides more tangible results that attitudinal change may not be able to attain. The main goal is simple: change who sits at the table. There are dozens of ways in which the CJS can reform the injustice epidemic, which will be mentioned, but none of these ideas will come to fruition if there is not accurate representation of disadvantaged groups in the discourse. That should be number one on the docket. Moreover, in the short-term, individuals with low level drug offenses serving mandatory minimums need to be acquitted of their “crimes.” So long as articles like What It’s Like To Go To Weed Yoga are being written while Americans are sitting in jail for 20 years on marijuana charges, the CJS will be apathetically inequitable (FAMM).

In the long-term, there needs to be an increase in CJS transparency, major educational reform in and outside of prisons, better opportunities for released inmates, and strict consequences for police brutality.

CJS records and reports are opaque at best. Even the above statistics are often more harsh, but end up filtered through the shifty sifter of back rooms and courthouses. This is not to imply that the amplitude of the injustice epidemic as it stands now is not outrageous in-and-of itself. Rather, one can only imagine how stark the numbers would be if all data was given in a transparent and candid form. How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation, a study that focuses on education in and outside of correctional facilities found that, “correctional education is effective in reducing recidivism for incarcerated adults and that there is reasonable evidence that it is also effective, especially vocational training, in improving individuals’ likelihood of post release employment” (Davis, 2014).  In conjunction with attitudinal change towards systematically disadvantaged groups, there must also be changed legislation in order to regulate discriminatory practices against people of color with a criminal record in job markets. In a study conducted by Devah Pager, an American Sociologist, whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment in job interviews, than blacks without criminal records (Pager, 2003). Lastly, in 2015, 99 percent of police officers were acquitted of all charges after their malpractices (Mapping Police Violence). This must be stopped. Unless the CJS is held accountable for their actions, the vicious cycle of the injustice epidemic will inevitably continue.

Works Cited

Carroll, Stephen J., and Emre Erkut. “Educational Attainment and Spending on the Corrections System.” The Benefits to Taxpayers from Increases in Students’ Educational Attainment, 1st ed., RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA; Arlington, VA; Pittsburgh, PA, 2009, pp. 61–68. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg686wfhf.13.

Davis, Lois M., et al. “Conclusions and Recommendations.” How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation, RAND Corporation, 2014, pp. 81–90. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt6wq8mt.13.

Jennifer Balint, et al. “‘Post-Conflict’ Reconstruction, the Crimes of the Powerful and Transitional Justice.” State Crime Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp. 4–12. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/statecrime.6.1.0004.

crobinson@al.com, Carol Robinson |. “’Combative’ Suspect Dies 1 Day after Struggling with Lawmen in Tuscaloosa County.” AL.com, AL.com, 19 June 2017, www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2017/06/combative_suspect_dies_1_day_a.html.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams, et al. “Say Her Name.” Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, 2015.

Balko, Radley. “U.S. Cities Pay out Millions to Settle Police Lawsuits.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Oct. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/10/01/u-s-cities-pay-out-millions-to-settle-police-lawsuits/?utm_term=.fee2364816b5.

“More Than $600,000 Spent on Police Gear for Pipeline Protest.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/12/16/us/ap-us-pipeline-protest-purchases.html.

Bobo, Lawrence D., and Victor Thompson. “Unfair by Design: The War on Drugs, Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System.” Social Research, vol. 73, no. 2, 2006, pp. 445–472. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40971832.

Constitute, www.constituteproject.org/constitution/United_States_of_America_1992.

“Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 June 2017, www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts/index.html.

Svrluga, Susan. “Fairfax Teacher Suspended after Complaint That a Student’s Hijab Was Yanked Off.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 Nov. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/11/16/fairfax-teacher-suspended-after-complaint-that-a-students-hijab-was-yanked-off/?utm_term=.c79b13a013f9.

“The Declaration of Independence: Full Text.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/.

Misener, Mathew Guiver Jessica. “What It’s Like To Go To Weed Yoga.” BuzzFeed, www.buzzfeed.com/mathewguiver/weed-yoga?utm_term=.klL2o3pgqO#.vfbvq50Ap7.

“» What Are Mandatory Minimums?” FAMM, famm.org/mandatory-minimums/.

Pager, Devah. “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 108, no. 5, 2003, pp. 937–975. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/374403.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press, 2012.

 

 

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