The Communist Party in the USSR was so tyrannical that they had almost 25% of all global prisoners in their gulags alone. Now, what if I told you that was a lie, and in the year 2020, while only making up 4.4% of the global population the US accounts for nearly 25% of all global prisoners. This time, however, instead of gulags it is the tangled bureaucratic mess of our justice system. In a country that prides itself on liberty and freedom, why do we have so many people in jail? I want to try and lay out how our justice system looks to put people behind bars and keep them there from the second they hear their Miranda Rights to the day they die.
The thin blue line that protects us from danger increasingly feels like more of a threat than a protector. From getting pulled over for being a teenager driving at night to seeing my friends harassed by suburban cops for having darker skin, I seem to have built up an(albeit unfair) animosity towards police officers. I recognize that there are probably 10 “good cops” for every 1 “bad cop,” but the larger point is that the system is designed to allow that bad cop to thrive and stay on the force until retirement while Tamir Rice remains dead. It is the same system that puts a man behind bars for 10 years for possession of narcotics, while Jason Van Dyke goes to jail for a little under 7 years for shooting Laquan Macdonald 16 times in the back as he walked away from him with a 3-inch folding knife. A few weeks back, a video showed up on my Tik Tok page explaining a step by step way to “make the officer feel safe” while at a traffic stop to avoid getting shot. It blows my mind that young black men in America are tasked with making police officers feel safe, the same officers who live under the motto “Serve and Protect”. As previously stated I have no animosity toward specific cops, but rather the system that allows racism and violence to thrive on the force creating a bad name for all police officers, many of whom are just trying to do their jobs. If our government wants a force that will protect its citizens: Invest in body cams, additional training, non-lethal apprehension techniques, and most importantly community projects. This way, we can bring back the days of the friendly neighborhood cop.
If you have managed to make it into police custody without getting shot and now have a court date, you need to finesse the system to walk away with a clean record, even if you are innocent. The podcast “Serial” in its most recent season followed a number of stories through the Cleaveland criminal justice system. One of the most memorable quotes from the season was made by one defense attorney who remarked, “In Cleveland, innocence is a Misdemeanor.” The court system in much of the country relies on plea deals to function. If every criminal case went to trial, there would be a complete overload. This leads prosecutors to do what is called “overcharging,” where they might tack on two or three additional charges to get the defendant to plead guilty in exchange for dropping those extra charges. The American model of justice where people are “innocent until proven guilty” is admirable, but until these systemic flaws are corrected it looks much more like “guilty until proven innocent.” I generally do not like to complain about things unless I have a solution for them, but I might need a law degree before I try to tackle this one.
In the past ten years, incarceration rates overall have fallen to a twenty-year low. Without having the data to back it up, I would make the educated guess that this is most likely as a result of the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in many states and a slow to the disastrous war on drugs. While this is good news, the larger problem that we have within our prison system is that it fails to do exactly what it was designed to do: take dangerous people off the streets and reform them into functioning members of society. It is clear from the data that the United States Prison System is designed to keep people coming back for more. “Using a Bureau of Justice Statistic study finding inmates released from state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6%” (HuffPost). The failure of the prison system to perform its intended purpose, in my opinion, is due to profit. There are around 350 private prisons in the United States housing 19% of the total prison population. While I could go into detail about the moral absurdity that goes along with making a buck off the backs of people with literally no other option, it is common sense that should drive us to a logical conclusion: A prison that makes money off of being full has a large incentive to keep that prison full. Even in public prisons, we see greed play a part with local sheriffs, often pocketing whatever surplus a prison produces. An Alabama sheriff legally pocketed $750,000 that was intended to go towards feeding inmates. Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio (recently pardoned by President Trump) willingly called his own prisons “concentration camps.”
A few steps to rectify this:
Take capitalism out of the justice system. Almost everything in our society is corrupted in some way by greed, and whether or not an inmate eats definitely should not be one of them.
Legalize or decriminalize controlled substances and free and expunge the millions of nonviolent, low-level offenders that are behind bars. Andrew Yang said that on his first day in office, he would sign an executive order doing this and show up at a prison to personally high five each person as they walked out the door.
Start treating prisoners like people. I reject the idea that someone who has committed a crime has lost their right to humanity. Our 8th amendment right solidifies the right to reasonable punishment, and it is time we started to hold that right in the same regard that many hold the right to bear arms.
It is our obligation as Americans to fight against injustice, especially when the injustice comes from the justice system.
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