Nyoka and I were talking about Kaleif Browder the other day. I’ve been slowly making my way through his documentary on Netflix and Black’ish referenced him in a recent episode so she wanted to know the full story about him. I think she was kinda hoping their quick reference was not true as it sounded so depressing to her. (SPOILER ALERT: It was true.) This pushed us through a deeper discussion about the criminal justice system and how it is broken, and I thought I’d share that here as well.
I remember thinking positively about all elements of the War on Drugs including the Clinton Crime Bill in 1994. Whenever I heard things about both efforts I supported them because it’s easy when you’re a privileged white person to just say “Only Criminals Break The Law And They Should Be Punished For That” and then simply go about your life. Never once needing to acknowledge how that outlook is a gross oversimplification of a complex problem that a creates an overall negative impact on communities of color.
We need to step back and say: What is really the point of the incarceration of criminals? Well, as a society we understand the point to be punishment and deterrent. We want to punish a crime and have that punishment act as a deterrent from future criminal behavior.
Let’s start with the first part of that: Punishing the crime. If you are a privileged white person without an even remote connection to anyone in prison, you can assume that the punishments fit the crimes because it allows you to sleep at night. But here is one simple fact that will disrupt that: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 outlined more severe punishment for distribution of crack than powder cocaine. Now, think in your head (especially if you can actually remember the 80s) of someone smoking crack and someone doing coke. Crack? A black person drug. Coke? A privileged white person drug. Right there – how can we say the punishment fits the crime when the crime is basically THE SAME but has different punishments?
And then consider the fact that marijuana is still categorized as Schedule 1 from the Controlled Substance Act which means pot offenses often carry life punishments. Here’s a great article discussing this problem in several states including Alabama. So with the tip of this “War on Drug” iceberg we start to shatter the illusion that “punishing the crime” is any sort of altruistic goal of how we incarcerate certain criminals. We need to stop assuming that someone currently serving a prison sentence deserved the prison sentence they’re serving.
But then let’s go on to the part where we assume that this incarceration is a deterrent from future criminal behavior. In a perfect world, maybe you serve a few sucky years in prison for selling pot on the corner and then you come out and think, “That sucked. I don’t want to do that again.” So you get a real job, maybe you go to college, you keep your nose clean, and never get arrested again.
Here’s the problem though: You are labeled a felon. This means you suffer continuing civil penalties, like not being able to live in public housing, not being able to vote in some states, and not being able to get student loans. So, you walk out of prison never wanting to go back, but you can’t find a place to live, you can’t get a job because no one wants to hire a felon and you have to check that box, you can’t go to college, and you can’t find a place to live. So, while you might never want to go to prison again, your options to survive without criminal activity are slim to none.
And this is just a small glimpse of the injustices in our criminal justice system. I’ve not even touched on the fact that people end up serving time for not being able to pay court fines. John Oliver did a great report on that a few years ago, and how being poor basically means your punishments become more severe than someone who has the means to pay court fines. We are punishing the poor harsher simply because they are poor.
This also doesn’t even touch on privatized prisons and how companies are PROFITING FROM RECIDIVISM. They make more money if someone FAILS at becoming a contributing member of society. Why would a prison want to support programs to help prisoners become contributing members of society after time is served (with education or training programs) if that means they LOSE MONEY IN THE LONG RUN. Of course they aren’t going to put profits back into those type of programs. No, they make more money if people return so they want them as crippled as possible.
Yes, in a perfect world, the punishments fit the crime, and then have programs that help criminals become contributing members of society after they’ve served their punishment. Boom. We no longer have to pay for them in a prison system and they are contributing via taxes and by being part of our functioning society. And if you are a privileged white person you like myself, you probably fooled yourself into thinking that was kinda how the system worked. But if you start digging into it you see how it could be considered The New Jim Crow. I don’t know the solution, and thankfully there are plenty of smarter people than me working on that, but I do know my first job is to shatter the illusion I believed for a long time and to be open to seeing how the system is broken and cripples people of color exponentially more than their white counterparts.