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Saturday, October 22, 2016

The United States does not have a justice system.

If we define a justice system as a system designed for the production of justice, then it seems obvious that term cannot reasonably be applied to a system that countenances the mass incarceration by race and class of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders. Any system that vacuums in 1 out of every 3 African-American males while letting a banker who launders money for terrorist-connected organizations, Mexican drug cartels, and Russian mobsters off with a fine is not a justice system.

No, you call that an injustice system.

This is something I’ve been saying for years. Imagine my surprise when, last week, President Obama said it, too. “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair,” he said in a speech before the NAACP in Philadelphia, “that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system.” He called for reforms, including the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and the repeal of laws that bar ex-felons from voting.

This was the day after Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, and two days before he became the first president to visit a prison, Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, near Oklahoma City. “There but for the grace of God,” he said, minutes after poking his head into an empty 9-by-10 cell that houses three inmates.

It was more than just an acknowledgment of his personal good fortune. Given that Obama, his two immediate predecessors, and such disparate luminaries as Sarah Palin, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum are known to have used illicit drugs when they were younger, it was also a tacit acknowledgment that fate takes hairpin turns. And that the veil separating drug offender from productive citizen is thinner than we sometimes like to admit.

Welcome to what may be a transformational moment: the end of an odious era of American jurisprudence. Meaning, the era of mass incarceration.

Apparently, the president has decided to make this a priority of his final 18 months in office. Even better, the call for reform enjoys bipartisan support. Republican senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, among others, have embraced the cause. And the very conservative Koch brothers have chosen to “ban the box” (i.e., stop requiring ex-offenders to disclose their prison records to prospective employers on their job applications).

All of which raises the promise that, just maybe, something will actually be done.

It is long past “about time.” Our color-coded, class-conscious, zero-tolerance, punishment-centric, mandatory minimum system of “justice” has made us the largest jailer on earth. One in four of the world’s prisoners is in an American lockup. This insane rate of imprisonment has strained resources and decimated communities.

It has also shattered families and impoverished children, particularly black ones. So many people bewail or condemn the fact that a disproportionate number of black children grow up without fathers, never connecting the dots to the fact that a disproportionate number of black fathers are locked up for the same nonviolent drug offenses for which white fathers routinely go free.

The “get tough on crime” wave that swept over this country in the ’80s and ’90s was born of the unfortunate American penchant for applying simplistic answers to complicated questions. But bumper-sticker solutions have a way of bringing unintended consequences.

We will be dealing with these unintended consequences for generations to come. But perhaps we are finally ready to take steps toward reversing that historic blunder.

And giving America a justice system worthy of the name.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Tim Evanson via Flickr

  • FireBaron

    What we really need is a justice system where the deck is stacked in favor of people who can afford the best lawyers. When the first words out of a PD’s mouth to an indigent defendant is “We can plea this down to (fill in the blank) and you will have to do (fill in the blank) months in jail plus (fill in the blank) months probation.” instead of saying, “What can we do to get these charged dropped and you free?”, the system is not geared correctly.
    We really should look at the following as fixes:
    1. Find the money to put uniformed police officers walking around in the neighborhoods. There are some parts of some cities where even they are reluctant to go.
    2. Make sure candidates for police departments pass psychological screening and then provide them with the best training possible.
    3. Get rid of “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws”. These are the biggest restrictions that judges have in imposing justice. All they do is force retribution, and make people potentially capable of reforming into hardened criminals.
    4. Increase the pay and staff sizes for both the District Attorney and Public Defender offices. Neither of these get the quality lawyers they really need to do their jobs.
    5. Increase the quality of training for crime labs. Enough said on that one.
    6. Review the laws in adjacent states to make sure that laws provide equal treatment for penalties throughout the country.
    7. Increase the pay for jurors. Some folks just cannot afford to serve, based on what the government pays for their services.

    • TZToronto

      Sadly, the “prison industry” and its shareholders would be very upset if the prison population were substantially reduced.

      • Allan Richardson

        Too bad! Nobody forces people to buy cars or TV sets so the car and TV industry can make more money. Neither should the prison industry have the political power to force people into its facilities just to make more money.

        • TZToronto

          I guess the prison companies like that almost free labor they get. I’m surprised they even feed the prisoners–doesn’t that cut into their profits?

          • dpaano

            That’s the problem with privatized prison systems.

    • Allan Richardson

      There should also be a cap on what can be spent to prosecute a defendant, perhaps the amount his/her DEFENSE can afford to pay? The majority of defendants either go into debt just to HIRE an attorney, with no money left for that attorney’s office to do actual INVESTIGATION and uncover evidence the prosecution does not want to find (or, illegally but with no punishment when they do it, could be hiding), or they have to have a public defender. In the former case, the attorney knows that much of the bill will have to be written off even if the lower income defendant is ACQUITTED and able to return to work, and probably ALL of it if the defendant goes to jail and cannot work, so it is too risky to “invest” much more than the bare minimum of filling out paperwork and showing up in court. And in the latter case, the same STATE which is paying to prosecute is paying for the public defender (or contracted attorney), but since the state’s interest is to raise conviction rates, they have an incentive to STARVE the public defender’s budget.

      If there were a law that the prosecutor MUST NOT spend more than the defense can afford to spend, public defenders would be able to demand bigger operating budgets, and fewer cases would go to trial until there is enough evidence to be sure of a conviction even against a big budget defense, while more “bad” cases would be dropped so the police can go back to look for more likely suspects.

    • Elliot J. Stamler

      I thoroughly endorse every one of these very wise proposals. Unfortunately the conservatives, with a few notable exceptions, will refuse to enact them since their only answer to every social problem is to criminalize it and then punish it with maximum severity..the “hit ’em over the head” approach. Proposal # 6 in which you use the word “review” causes the states rights question to arise. Proposal # 4 is wise but of even greater importance for public defenders who are usually outclassed and outfunded by prosecutors.

  • lena.cabrale
    • idamag

      lena.cabrale is a scam. As soon as people stop falling for scams they will die.

  • Elliot J. Stamler

    As usual, Leonard Pitts puts his racially-obsessed interpretation on an issue. The justice system does need to be overhauled in the ways he has suggested. Even more…it should get rid of the victimless-crime laws that still permeate it. The latter won’t happen because of the most dangerous group within America: social conservatives who believe with religious mania that criminal law must be used to enforce social (read sexual) morality as they define it. But the issue, despite Mr. Pitts, is NOT racial. If his recommendations were followed, WHICH I SUPPORT, there would remain a large over-represented cohort of black men in prison….and RIGHTLY SO. For crimes of violence and refusal to obey police officers in the latter’s performance of their duties. These are facts; there is in this country a huge UNDERCLASS of black men who have no desire to obey the law and frankly no conscience. They are responsible for an enormous amount of black crime…very often against other blacks and very often against whites.
    I know it, Mr. Pitts knows it, and every law-abiding black and white person knows it. Until the black community strongly faces up to this reality, there will be no solution. People like Mr. Pitts stay in a state of denial or a state of permanent racial grudge against whites. If my comment gets the usual smears from the Pitts folks, so be it…I write what I know to be the truth including in conclusion I am unalterably opposed to ALL RACISM BY ALL RACISTS AGAINST ANYONE.

    • jrj1701

      Your rhetoric doesn’t fit the facts that I have seen with my own eyes. All your rhetoric does is help maintain the status quo and prevents any discussion on the reality of our prison system. You deny racism yet present bigoted rhetoric. That is why racism can’t be stopped because it is too easy to justify unfounded fears. May I suggest that you STFU and pay attention to some real facts. More crimes are committed by whites than blacks, more blacks are in prison than whites, most blacks are in for victimless drug laws, not violence as some state.

      • Elliot J. Stamler

        You are precisely the kind of black white-hating racist I criticize. You can take your black racism and black power and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Of course whites commit more crimes than blacks; whites are 85% of the country. Most blacks are in jail for crimes that do have victims but as I said I support reform of the drug laws so that some things would not call for imprisonment. But being a cocaine or heroin dealer is not a victimless crime! A huge number of black prisoners are not there for very minor drug crimes – if they are they AND white prisoners imprisoned for the same reason should not be there. I don’t know of any statistics stating that altogether more blacks are currently imprisoned than whites–you cite me some credible evidence.
        Here, you black racist, is a fact: in any major city you can walk at 2 a.m. through the great majority of all white neighborhoods safely. Try the same walking through all black neighborhoods at 2 a.m. – I live in NYC. I know whereof I write and any black citizen of my city would agree with what I just claimed. And my comment applies to peaceable BLACK people walking thru their own neighborhoods at 2 a.m. also.
        You go and give a french kiss to your soul mate, the black racist and rabble-rouser Al Sharpton. You epitomize black racism as much as those confederate flag-waving nincompoops down south epitomize white racism.

        • jrj1701

          My My My, aren’t you just the typical online commenter. Your response is so typical it is boring, first you respond with ad hominem attacks and then want me to waste my time doing your homework for you, to only have my work disregarded by you for you have already made up your mind. Quit relying on others info and compile your own. You are wrong, I am not black, I am a repentant white racist that had to face the reality of what I have seen, instead of doing what most do and believe the false information that has been fed to me. I have visited prisons and jails throughout the southeast and have seen with my own eyes the reality of this country’s institutional racism, I have been in bad neighborhoods at 2:00 am and have seen how both black and white poor thugs have victimized those they thought were weak. Your response epitomizes the denial of the problem of racism and is indicative of somebody who is being fed false info and is too proud to admit it.

          • Elliot J. Stamler

            OK, so you are white. You use the term “poor” thugs as if being poor is an excuse for being a thug…not only is it not but to advance such an idea is a libel on the huge majority of law-abiding poor people. A country which has elected a black president, has over 40 black members of Congress, a black Supreme Court justices, numerous blacks serving as secretaries in the cabinet including two black secretaries of state one of whom had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in my home state, a black governor, a black state comptroller, a black (NYC) mayor, various black CEOs of huge corporations like American Express, Xerox, Time Warner, etc. IS NOT A COUNTRY OF INSTITUTIONAL RACISM. There is racism in this country and from what I can see it is as prevalent amongst blacks as whites and maybe even more so amongst blacks because black leaders who are not racist will not stand up and denounce it in clear, unambiguous, and angry language…none since the late Dr. King whom I enormously admired. YOU are an apologist for black racism and rampant black crime..another weenie who despite your statement cannot dispute the truth of my comments..come on up to NY and take a few 2 a.m. walks through the South Bronx or East New York (Bkln)…I’ll come visit you in the hospital..or the morgue.

          • jrj1701

            Yet again you are wrong, I have walked through rough neighborhoods such as Techwood and Kirkwood in Atlanta, and considering my knowledge of predators and how to face them I have had few problems. I have experienced black racist and do not apologize for their attitudes, yet they do present some valid facts. Even President Obama admits that there is a problem with institutional racism, and those that would deny it cannot dispute the facts, all they do is try to introduce forcefully by ad hominem and false rhetorical dogma established by those who wish to keep the problem with racism alive and healthy. t I haven’t seen anything in your comments that is indisputable and reality effectively refutes your claims. I suggest that you study this situation by visiting the jails and prisons and talking to those that have been caught up in our predatorial justice system, it would be an eye-opening experience. Here is something else you can do, go find a well dressed, well groomed black man, and then you dress as a poor white man then go to Central Park, and have the black man ask folks for the time, then you do the same and see what happens.

          • Elliot J. Stamler

            I don’t intend continuing this dialog – we are not going to agree. If you READ, carefully, what I wrote I never gainsaid that there is some white racism in America…of course there is. My point was different: that there is a great deal of black racism also. I repeatedly denounced all racism. I am not ashamed I am white and I fully apprehend the great majority of black people are good people. But I will not conform to the politically-correct lie put forth by Leonard Pitts and by you that the huge number of blacks in jail are there due to racism…they are there because they are criminals.

          • jrj1701

            Saying that I am obsessed with anti-white prejudice is ad hominem. I knew that I would not change your mind when I replied to you, yet there are others reading this comment thread and I wanted to demonstrate how the majority belittles the problem with racism and classism, and use the same tired arguments to deny institutional racism and classism. Those in jails are not always guilty, a majority of them are poor and minorities, and cannot afford adequate representation. Underestimating the role of racism and classism in our justice system is to ignore the elephant in the room and thus not correct the problem. Thanks for being you, you helped make a point that needs to be presented.

  • jamesowens

    justice in America is not blind-IT only see the green of money-if you cant by a good enough lawyer you n al by a jude

  • idamag

    It is easy to lose respect for what passes as a justice system, when a man murders his estranged wife and the person who came to return her glasses, left in his restaurant, and is found not guilty. Later, the civil court finds him guilty because of the suppressed evidence from the criminal trial. The Supreme court is supposed to be the court of last resort, but politicians can go there and get legislation from the bench, i.e. Citizens United. The problem with selecting justices, for the Supreme Court, is that it becomes political. It would be more fair if all the judges names were put in a lottery type thing and that is how the selection is done. Our state court justices are voted in and they solicit campaign donations. Wrong way again.