Well-known critiques of the United States’ justice system are not hard to come by. This is perhaps especially true at an intellectual liberal arts college like CC. But, the failures of our courts and prisons go well beyond what we may sometimes hear about in class. In fact, if anyone tried to keep track of all the news rolling in day after day about another failure in our justice system, we’d probably give up.
America’s ways of dealing with crime are the most backwards, unproductive, and overpriced in the developed world. We aggressively arrest citizens and force people into prison for long sentences for crimes that are treated as minor just about everywhere else. According to United Nations statistics, we incarcerate our citizens at by far the greatest rate of any nation on earth. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are imprisoned in the United States, while Americans make up just 5 percent of the world’s population. Statistics regarding the dramatically racist over-arresting and over-sentencing of minorities, particularly black men, are telling. According to Human Rights Watch, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at rates fifty times greater than those of white men.
Michelle Alexander, author of the internationally renowned book, “The New Jim Crow”, has visited campus before, and discussed the concrete patterns of bigotry, racism, and undeniable oppression ingrained in American legal practices. What is too often left out of common discussions on our justice system, though, is the overwhelming failures of the law to properly handle crime. Incompetence in our justice system is an epidemic.
Take Ohio: The American Civil Liberties Union recently concluded that the state of Ohio is illegally throwing scores of its poorest citizens into prison for minor offenses like failure to pay off a small debt. Of course, high-class criminals on Wall Street, even those who have admitted to fraudulent activities and have stolen millions from the poor, are getting off easy.
The law unfairly targets unemployed and economically disadvantaged Ohioans. According to a ThinkProgress.com article on the ACLU report, Jack Dawley owed $1,500 in “fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court,” and was behind on child support payments, so Ohio illegally sent him to prison in Wisconsin for three-and-a-half years. Single mother Tricia Metcalf was illegally taken to jail repeatedly when she wasn’t able to make her monthly $50 payments on fines for writing bad checks.
In Illinois and Indiana, the FBI has detained hundreds of people, 99% of them Arab Muslims, on terrorism suspicion since 2004. Innocent people have been kept behind bars for, what the Washington Post called “no reason other than the fact that they we’re Arab Muslims.” New York Magazine wrote a groundbreaking article in 2010 on the “medium security” Communication Management Unit, a prison for suspected terrorists. Within, they charged the Bush Administration with some of the most heinous and unconstitutional practices of racial profiling in American history. The ACLU claims that the treatment of prisoners in Indiana is illegally far worse than those of the maximum security Supermax facility in Colorado. Prisoners are kept from social interaction, from speaking Arabic, and from speaking on the phone – all against the law.
The United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., was shut down after the ACLU proved the Communication Management Unit violated international human rights law and the U.S. Constitution. But the prison in Indiana remains up and running, housing both criminal terrorists and innocent people.
Let’s bring it on home. Right here in Colorado, a monumental failure of a cleric at a prison outside Denver let a suspected serial killer Evan Ebel, guilty of multiple assaults and suspected of multiple murders, out four years early.
This case proves that failures of our justice system aren’t just hurting prisoners, but they are endangering the public.
In our system, the law is breaking laws and failing to enforce laws properly. It’s time prison reform became a top issue in America.
Prisoners everywhere are just waiting to be noticed. They deserve policies that help them out. We owe it to the Constitution and the integrity of our “free” country, to change our ways. We need to demand a system that better protects not just citizens from criminals, but prisoners from human rights violations.