Criminal Justice Reform

It’s long past time for Criminal Justice Reform, says Richard Wagner

It’s long past time for Criminal Justice Reform, says Richard Wagner

At first, it was just the occasional slight towards blacks.  The gas station attendant who let me fill my tank before paying, while making the black guy in the next car prepay.  It may be because I’d been to that station many times before.  I can’t be sure.

I heard rumors of racial profiling by police officers.  I didn’t know what to think.  I don’t think the cops are racist.  But yet statistics show that blacks get pulled over way more than whites, or Asians, or even Hispanics.  

I also learned the statistics on poverty in the black community.  Over 27% of blacks live in poverty, compared to 9.9% of whites . Hispanics fare only slightly better than blacks at 26.6%.  

The relationship between poverty and incarceration

I don’t doubt that the impoverished are more likely to be incarcerated.  As Rand Paul has pointed out, it’s easier to convict the poor, as they can’t afford the best defense attorney’s.  If it’s as simple as poverty, than arrest rates for Hispanics should be about the same as for blacks.  

Yet in 2009, app. 840,000 black males were incarcerated , compared to 442,000 Hispanic males.  That’s nearly twice as much. And the African-American population of the US is just over 12%, nearly equal in size to the Hispanic population.  (The Hispanic population may be much larger, depending on how you define “Hispanic”.)

So, nearly equal population size, nearly equal rates of poverty, yet African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Hispanics.

Is it the breakdown of the black family?

Some believe that much of the problem is the absent father from black families.  72% of African-American mothers are single when they give birth.  Could it be that the lack of a male role model for so many black youths is a contributing factor in the high rates of black incarceration?  The 72% statistic is staggering.  And if it were as much of a problem as I’d thought, I’d dive deep into psychology and the importance of a male role model.  

However, that statistic, though accurate, is misleading.  It turns out that about 2/3 of black dads are present in the home. I still applaud President Obama for his efforts to empower young men of color as there is still that 1/3 to consider, and aside from that, I think that empowering men of color will strengthen the family.  But none-the-less, an unmarried present dad is still a present dad.  Hence, the black family isn’t doing as bad as we thought.  

The Crux of Structural Racism is in the Criminal Justice System

Jim Webb and Rand Paul, are both fully aware of this issue.  Jim Webb has long fought to reduce the size of the prison population in the US, and focus on rehabilitation, to reduce recidivism (going back to prison).  He actually spearheaded the issue in Congress.  

Rand Paul was a more recent convert to the cause.  The whole country owes a debt of gratitude to Rand Paul, for he selflessly risked his presidential bid for this important issue.  Keep in mind, it was the Republican Primaries, dominated heavily by older white voters who grew at the end of the old Jim Crow era (I agree with Michele Alexander that this is the “New Jim Crow”).

I heard Paul’s arguments about blacks are more likely to be arrested due to poverty and the areas in which they live.  I heard him and Cory Booker argue for making it easier to expunge criminal records so that they had a better chance of finding employment..  I considered then that this could be a contributing factor in black poverty.  (Hispanic poverty is likely high because many of them are undocumented.)

Aside from the possibility of systemic racism in employment (employers favoring whites or Asians), a perfectly fair employer may still be less likely to hire someone black simply because they are more likely to have something in their criminal background.  

“Well then black people should stop committing crimes!”  

Consider this.  A poor black man, innocent of the crime, but who was near the crime scene, is now being interrogated by police eager to close a case.  It’s like an episode of Law and Order.  If you plead guilty, we’ll only charge you with third degree robbery.  We can get you off in a year.  If you take it to court, we’ve got enough to convict you (the cops may be bluffing) and with first degree armed robbery, you won’t see the light of day for 10 years!  

The poor black man was taught by his parents, who marched with MLK and took a beating on the road to Selma; that the police don’t care about justice for blacks.  Now I’m not saying this is true in this day and age, but this is the perception that many innocent blacks have of the police.  So, the poor black man confesses to a crime he didn’t commit.  He serves his time, but tells his fellow inmates that he didn’t do it.  They laugh, “Right, nobody in here is guilty!  Hahaha”.  He gets out, but now has this criminal record.  He’s lucky to get a job stocking shelves for $8 an hour on the graveyard shift.

Also consider non-violent crimes.  Now be honest.  Whatever you think of Marijuana, lots of people have tried it.  Bill Clinton tried it, but he “didn’t inhale”.  Police are less likely to bother a lower middle class white kid in a peaceful, blue collar mostly white suburb.  

In the Presidential debates, Rand Paul called out Jeb Bush for this.  

“Kids who have privilege, like you do, don’t go to jail.  But the poor kids in our inner-cities do go to jail…” Bush is right about the epidemic of heroin, but we really need to emphasize treatment for non-violent offenders, rather than punishment.  Sadly, in our current system, the recovered drug addict who just got out of jail will have a hard time finding a job, making it that much more likely that they’ll turn back to what they know, their previous profession as a street pharmacist.

Can we finally get Criminal Justice Reform in 2017?

I don’t think “Crime Bill” Clinton, or “Law and Order” Trump have much genuine interest in this.  However, they both care about scoring political points.  Hillary Clinton is a career politician, and Trump is a masterful advertiser.  Public Opinion is really changing on this.

If the American people keep the pressure on this issue, if we can agree that Criminal Justice Reform is more important than which party is in power, this can happen.  As a white man who grew up admiring the legacy of MLK, I am absolutely disgusted and frustrated that racism continues in 2016.  This was supposed to be over in 1965.  

Rand Paul is going to stay in the US Senate more likely, and I’m sure he’ll continue to fight the good fight.  I don’t think this can happen without the at least tacit support of the President, as 2/3 of the Senate (needed to overturn a Presidential Veto) is unlikely to be united on much of anything for the good of the American people.  If the people support political leaders like Rand Paul and Cory Booker when they come back to this issue in 2017, right across party lines, neither Clinton nor Trump could say “no”, and expect their party to win the mid-terms in 2018, much less re-election in 2020.  

We can make this happen!

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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