Food for Thought: Criminal Justice

I was reading the book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson yesterday and stumbled across a passage of writing that struck me as incredibly relevant and personally moving. Bryan Stevenson is a criminal lawyer for those on death row and those “trapped in the farthest reaches of the criminal justice system” in the United States (Stevenson). I figured I would share the excerpt from his non-fiction experience and see if any of the readers out there (all three of you haha) have anything to add or say about it. It is important to remember that the book was published in 2014, so the data an information is recent. Stevenson writes;

“…Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a costly war on people with substance abuse problems.There are more than a half-million people in state or federal prison for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980.

We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like “Three strikes and you’re out” to communicate our toughness. We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them “criminal,” “murderer,” “rapist,” “thief,” “drug dealer,” “sex offender,” “felon”-identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.

The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been equally profound. We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and pubic housing if they have prior drug convictions. We have created a new caste system that forces thousands of people into homelessness, bans them from living with their families and in their communities, and renders them virtually unemployable. Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Act of 1965….

Finally, we spend lots of money. Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentive to improve public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote rehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds from public services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now face unprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prison commerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall for a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.” (Stevenson, 15-16).

As someone who has been labeled a felon, I see the immediate relevance of Stevenson’s argument against the privatization of prison health care and services as well as the criminalization of all those with charges on their records, no matter how long ago the offense was committed or what the offender has done in their life since the conviction. It is nearly impossible to find a job as a felon, trust me. Because my felony was drug-related I have been labeled an addict and a “risk to the community.” At first he tried to tell me to blame it all on my “dead-beat” boyfriend. “Come on” he said, “we both know he isn’t going anywhere in life. You’re in school. Save yourself and help us inform on someone.” I refused and he called my school attempting to get me kicked out by labeling me “uncooperative.”

Although I know there are good police officers out there, I have had numerous negative experiences with police, and not always because I was placing myself in situations where I would encounter them negatively. Once, when I asked a cop for a ride home, because I had none, he retorted: “What do I look like, a taxi?”

I can’t vote, I can’t apply for a government job, because my charges deny me that possibility. I have a negative stigma surrounding me years after the incident, because the charges were drug related. Our criminal justice system needs reform desperately. Instead of focusing on rehabilitating criminals, we isolate them, deny them their basic rights, stigmatize them, and then are surprised when they become repeat offenders. The recidivism rate in the U.S. is one of the highest in the world and the cost to house these prisoners is astronomical. Something needs to be done, I just wish I knew where to begin to get the reform movement rolling.

I’d like to hear some other opinions on this issue, though, so please, if you’re reading this, put your two cents in. Tell me your story, or if you disagree with Stevenson’s or my opinion, voice your own.

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