I know from firsthand experience that the “criminal justice system” today in the United States is in serious and urgent need of reform, repair and restructuring. Millions of families have been devastated by the “overcriminalization” of people in America. Black American families in particular have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionately as a result of an unjust system of justice.
When I was unjustly incarcerated in the 1970s as member of the famed Wilmington Ten civil rights case, I personally witnessed how the massive warehousing of prison inmates in overcrowded prison cells led to unspeakable dehumanization and self-destruction. In fact, the inhumanity and senselessness of the prison system itself directly contributed to the increased in violence and prison recidivism.
Forty-five years ago, the myriad of problems concerning the nation’s courts and prison systems was not seen as a national priority. Today, however, the dysfunction of the criminal justice system is not only a matter of national and global disgrace, it has also now become a multi-billion dollar counterproductive albatross around the neck of the nation.
According to a fact sheet by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), during the last four decades the prison population in the U.S. “quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.” There are nearly a million Black Americans in jails and prisons across the country.
The NAACP has identified the following other racial disparities in U.S. incarceration:
• African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites;
• Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the U.S. population;
• According to a November 2007 report titled, “Unlocking America,” if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of Whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50 percent;
• One in six Black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three Black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime;
• 1 in 100 African American women are in prison; and,
• Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youth who are detained, 46 percent of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
The recent public outcries about allegations of police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, and unfair targeting of judicial sanctions based on race and socioeconomic status are all symptoms of a much border and larger systemic problem.
The problems of inequalities within the criminal justice system are structural and institutional. While the U.S. is only 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are being held in the U.S.
Yet, the calls for reform of the criminal justice system are not revolutionary or misplaced. Both conservatives and liberals seem to agree that some fundamental changes need to be put in place when it comes to the nation’s courts, sentencing, jails and prisons. What is missing is a sense of urgency to get reform actions and policies established. Every day and every hour Black America is negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.
The Pew Charitable Trust has a study that documents the correlation between mass incarceration and the persistence of poverty in the U.S. There is no question that in the Black American community the lingering negative effects of imprisonment and poverty are closely related. Similarly a revealing Villanova University study on poverty and criminal justice found that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent ... several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.”
We all should find ways and means to tackle the reformation of the criminal justice system as a top priority. It is urgent and it is long overdue. So many lives and so many families are at risk. If we do not assert the responsibility to demand change and reform of a system that continues to brutalize and harm our families and communities, then we will not be our sisters and brothers keepers as we should.