Criminal Justice Reform
For years now, many both inside and outside of government have decried the inequities and injustices visited upon our populace by our inappropriately named “criminal justice system”. Punishment not befitting the nature of crimes people have been convicted of, inequality in terms of who is being convicted and how they are being sentenced and how people are being treated by our economic and political system once they are released from incarceration are three of the main problems identified as leading to massive injustice within our society as a whole.
Factors involving race and economic status have led to an inordinate proportion of members of racial minorities (most notably African Americans) and economically disadvantaged individuals being caught up in a seemingly unending cycle perpetuating racial, socio-economic and political inequality. Some people find themselves at an obvious disadvantage when facing treatment under the laws of the land which keeps them and their offspring facing an uphill battle when it comes to opportunity to improve their level of education, standard of living and representation in political affairs.
Laws are written and enforced that target certain groups of individuals based more on arbitrary characteristics than objective observation of the seriousness of personal conduct and its effects on others would indicate. For instance, the so-called War on Drugs has for years meted out more and longer sentences for the use and distribution of drugs predominantly used by the poor and racial minorities than of more economically secure white individuals. Combined with the fact that more economically well-off people can better afford to defend themselves in court, pay bail to avoid remaining incarcerated while awaiting trial, and avoid future legal difficulties involved when one is unable to pay fines, court costs, etc., this has led to significantly more members of disadvantaged groups being imprisoned for longer periods of time.
Once at the mercy of our criminal justice system, other factors combine to ensure that, over time, these inequities become entrenched and multiply. Incarcerated parents obviously cannot provide for their dependents nearly as well as those not imprisoned, leading to a vicious cycle of poverty starting from childhood that becomes even more difficult to break out of with the passage of time. Since education, health care, housing and nearly every other factor affecting opportunity for advancement in our society remain tied either directly or indirectly to economic status from birth through death, incarceration has a negative impact that reaches far beyond the life of the convicted prisoner.
Since the vast majority of states do not allow individuals to vote while in prison, and many do not restore voting rights upon release, convicted individuals are actually among the least politically empowered among us. The notion of having paid one’s debt to society becomes moot for many, as they are not allowed to rejoin society on an equal basis. Combine that with an economic system that restricts jobs available to people convicted of crimes and we have the makings of a permanent political and economic underclass of people who can count on a life with little prospect for improvement.
Privatizing the prison system and turning it into a for-profit enterprise has also tended to exacerbate these problems. Instead of encouraging rehabilitation of prisoners to enable future productive employment and a successful return to civilian society, there is increasing incentive to maintain a high level of prison occupancy. Not only do prisons provide jobs for the surrounding communities, they may also provide a captive force of extremely cheap labor for the private sector to profit from. Rather than striving for a society which minimizes incarceration, it often becomes easier (and more profitable for the corporations) to maintain the system as is or even increase the prison population.
Corruption in the privatized system has become rampant in some areas. A privately run juvenile detention facility in my area experienced a scandal where judges in the juvenile court system were found to have violated the legal rights of individuals and profited monetarily by sending juveniles to the detention facility and keeping incarceration rates there artificially high. Judges convicted in the scandal are currently serving terms of their own in prison, but that does nothing to repay the kids wrongfully imprisoned in the scheme. Privatization schemes also encourage cutting corners in the treatment of prisoners in order to keep costs down and maximize profits. Poor regulation and oversight by the government in an attempt to save tax dollars do both the taxpayers and the prisoners subjected to unfair treatment or inadequate care a grave disservice.
The high overall incarceration rate of individuals in our society is reflected in the fact that we imprison a larger portion of our populace than is the case in any other country in the world. In recent years, both former Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama himself have spoken out against and taken action to mitigate some of the negative effects of this system. Calls for reform and use of executive clemency have provided some leadership in recognizing and trying to ease some of the problems, but these measures are necessarily a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to rectifying the sheer magnitude of the injustices being perpetrated.
Legislation is needed at the Federal and State levels to address the shortcomings of our woeful criminal justice system. Reversing some of the insane rush to incarcerate more and more people for longer periods of time in the guise of waging a war on crime and/or war on drugs is badly needed. Three strikes laws make the situation worse. Providing executive clemency on a case-by-case basis, while mitigating the harm to specific individuals does little or nothing to alleviate the injustices inherent to the system as a whole.
Private profit should not be a part of the equation at all. Justice should not be held captive to a monetary bottom line. Laws should not be used to single out minority group members for arbitrary punishment while coddling malevolent behavior on the part of members of favored groups. Punishment should fit the crimes committed, in terms of the actual harm done by the guilty party upon other individuals or society as a whole. The proportion of our people who are either enforcing the law or imprisoned by it has become totally out of balance to the detriment of our overall societal justice.
Crime, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. However, there is no demonstrable correlation between race or economic status and evil, at least as far as I know. Leveling the meting out of justice should not be that difficult. Treating all individuals equally should result in a situation far from what we have now, where minorities and the poor are treated much more severely for equally abhorrent conduct perpetrated by members of other ethnic, racial or socio-economic groups. The same is true of all other groups afforded equal protection by the Constitution and other laws of the land. Get rid of the arbitrary nature of incarceration and minimize it rather than retaining the system that finds us imprisoning too many people for too long and denying them of their human rights indefinitely. Justice should prevail – not the good will and fair-mindedness of a single elected official or the base desire of a few to subjugate the will of the many.
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