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Justice in Black and White

Part 1 in a 2 Part Series

We cannot achieve social justice in the United States without tackling prison reform and the disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color. U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world. And, in certain states, ratios are even higher than the U.S. average with a huge disparity in the racial make-up of prisoners. For example, Oklahoma not only has the highest incarceration rate (719 per 100,000) but the highest black incarceration as well with 1 in 15 black males ages 18 and older serving time.

At BCT Partners, we strive to bring about a more just society by providing insights about diverse people that lead to equity. To that end, as we consider criminal justice reform, we explore the history of crime and punishment over the last 50 years and the steps that are finally being taken to reverse policies that have negatively impacted millions of Americans.

How did we get here?

It’s hard to consider solutions without acknowledging how we got here in the first place. Since 1970, the prison population has grown by 700 percent with this rise disproportionately affecting people of color. Whether it was because of an irrational fear of crime from white suburbanites demanding a crackdown, or policing policies that specifically targeted people of color, we have to start with the fact that racism was at the core of the fear and the subsequent response. The "war on drugs" was a thinly veiled “war on poor people.. Rather than dealing with the root causes of crime, we chose to lock people up which led to a vicious cycle of poverty affecting many families for generations.

The 1994 Crime Bill was one of the greatest examples of an overzealous response that led to sentencing laws where the punishment often did not fit the crime. It authorized 12.5 billion in grants for more punitive criminal justice policies such as the “three strikes” laws. It didn’t matter if you were caught stealing gum. If it was your third offense, the law required a minimum sentence of 25 years. One application of the three-strikes law was the Leandro Andrade case in California in 2009. Andrade attempted to rob $153 in videotapes from two K-Mart stores. He was charged under California's three-strikes law because of his criminal history concerning drugs and other burglaries and was sentenced to 50 years in prison with no parole after this last burglary. He was not only a father of three, but he was also a nine-year Army veteran, however, that had no effect on his sentencing nor did the fact that the crimes were minor. Compare that harsh sentence to those for many white-collar crimes and it’s impossible to ignore the injustice.

And it is also impossible to ignore the fact that correctional institutions have become big business. In fact, America spends more than $80 billion a year on prisons. To put that in perspective, that’s more than triple the entire Gross Domestic Product of the country of Rwanda. The Federal Government has subsidized states with billions of dollars to incarcerate more of their citizens. Not only does the system generate more revenue with each additional prisoner, but facilities also generate money for small things such as phone calls with rates anywhere from 20 cents to $1 per minute. With private companies operating many of the prisons and making record profits, it's not unreasonable believe that that their goal is not to rehabilitate prisoners at all, but rather to simply put more prisoners into the system.

Fortunately, Americans are finally starting to see initiatives aimed at reforming our criminal justice system and BCT Partners will explore those solutions in our next blog. As we ponder these issues on a national level, we should ask why these failed policies are finally being questioned. One theory is that the opioid crisis, and the fact that it affects more white people, has been the foundation for local, state, and even federal judiciaries reexamining their approach to crime. As Ekow N. Yankah, a Cardozo School of Law professor stated on PBS, “When the faces of addiction (i.e. during the crack epidemic) had dark skin, the police didn't see sons and daughters, sister and brothers. They saw brothas, young thugs to be locked up, not people with a purpose in life.”

We will continue exploring this topic in our next blog but continue to hope new laws and policies governing incarceration will lead to improvements in the inequities that presently exist regarding the race and socioeconomic status of criminal defendants. Punishments should be fair, just, and aimed at justice, not just punishment. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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