“Our Criminal Justice System isn’t as smart as it should be.” Obama
We know certain truths to be evident – the world is round, Starbucks Coffee is overpriced and Blacks are disproportionately imprisoned in the USA. And this week, I was reading a book about how we got here.
I should mention one thing from the start – this book is not an overaching explanation through the ages and throughout the country. Instead, James Forman Jr (who used to be a public defender and is therefore uniquely qualified to talk about this subject – indeed, I appreciate his view arguably more than that of a scholar, who only sees this subject in the abstract.) talks about a very narrow time and space frame: to be precise, the city of Washington DC from ca 1970 to 2000.
If you are worried that these limitations might restrict the topic too much – do not worry. As Foreman remarks, most of the punishment and litigation is done on a state level, not on the federal level – so the US Congress has very little do do with it. (One thing to keep in mind, as rumors of ‘criminal justice reform’ are ramping up on the hill.) And it turns out that these three decades were crucial in getting us where we are now.
Because none of this happened overnight. As Forman describes, this system was built slowly, even inadvertently – and, at least in the case of Washington DC, mostly by Black majors, police officers, and justices.
This whole story isn’t as simple as ‘Whites put draconian sentences in place, Blacks suffer from them.’ As always, the truth is much more complicated.
True, Whites have always used – and, you could make a very good point that they still do! – the justice system as a tool for racist policies. We all need to remember that many White policemen were proud members of the KKK. In fact, many southern police forces had their origins in hunting down fugitive slaves!
But Forman focuses on the role of Blacks in creating this system. It seems obvious, but worth pointing out – this doesn’t mean that this punitive system was created ONLY by blacks, as you sometimes hear and read. I got a bit of an uneasy feeling reading this book, and thinking about Whites would surely use it to wash their hands in innocence. Don’t do that. Forman tells one part of the story, but always be aware that Whites were anything but innocent when it comes to the incarceration of Black citizens.
Okay. Now that we got the disclaimers out of the way, what does Forman say?
First of all, we need to be aware that race isn’t all there is. “Although mass incarceration harms black America as a whole, its most direct victims are the poorest, least educated blacks.”
The US has a hard time talking about class, but we need to be aware of this fact so we can work on solutions.
And this problem needs to be solved, because mass incarceration creates a spiral of unemployment, poverty and criminality. Once you have been in prison, you are less likely to find a job, less likely to find a house, more likely to end up on the wrong side of the law again.
So, where did this all start?
In the 1960s, with a heroin crisis of epic proportions. We are all aware of the crack epidemic in the late 80s, but the truth is – this was the second drug that devastated the Black community. Crack only destroyed what Heroin didn’t get the first time around.
“By 1971, there were about fifteen times more heroin addicts in Washington DC than in all of England.” That sentence blew my mind.
And of course, it was never just the drugs. It was the crime that came with it. There were break-ins and robbery and assault, and murder. So is it really a surprise that the Black community yearned for law and order and therefore strict mandatory sentences for drug offenders?
Good idea, with very bad consequences.
People now got trapped in the system. Once you got sent to prison, you simply never made it out. This is where the ’30 years for a bag of marijuana’ come from – it was never intended for marijuana, but for heroin, but the law is the law.
All of a sudden, judges had no leniency in doling out sentences – and, as Forman shows, some of them didn’t want it. Black drug dealers were regarded as a disgrace to the race, as a disappointment to Martin Luther King Jr and everything he died for. So forgiveness was hard to come by, and it still is.
The same goes for Black policemen – they were not interested in community protection, but instead focused on law enforcement. (The difference in the definition of the police force’s main purpose between the US and Europe is endlessly fascinating to me, and I can’t wait to read more about it.)
So rather than helping Black drug offenders back on the way to sobriety and lawfulness, the emergence of Black judges and police officers helped putting them in jail.
It was a cruel coincidence that the ‘War on Drugs’ coincided with criminal law enforcement. As Forman says, it is not one single action that brought us to where we are now, but an accumulation of them.
And that means there is no easy solution for it – this system needs to be dismantled stone by stone, carefully, weighing the interactions between one law and the next. But one thing is clear – things cannot go on as they are now. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Quite simply put, the country cannot afford to imprison 1 in 3 African American Men.
I want to end on some good news – well, two. First, there seems to be some agreement between Republicans and Democrats that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed, though of course, we should wait to see what they come up with before celebrating.
Second – in the recent Midterm Elections, Florida passed Amendment 4, which restores Voting Rights for Felons – Millions of people gained their voting right back! So that’s good. (We should also never forget that former felons can’t vote, and with the numbers involved, this means that a sizeable portion of the African American population cannot vote.)
If you are interested in learning more about this – Netflix has an amazing documentary about it, made by Ava DuVernay. It’s simply called “13th” and I would highly recommend it.
Next week – see, I am not disgusted by a lot of things, but the book I’m going to talk about next week really made me cringe. So this should be fun!