Is America’s criminal system just us?

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More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850. One hundred and sixty-one years later, the biggest crime in America is a race-based criminal justice system where African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in much more aggressive ways than Whites. The U.S. justice system is a racist institution designed to marginalize and control millions of African-Americans. The system needs public scrutiny and disbandment.

A lot of African-Americans are doing well economically and politically, but an awful lot are in jail due to their lack of money and political power. Through its reach and impact, the U.S. prison industrial complex keep the nation’s power elite secure and in place. The system benefits government and industry and maintains racial disparities in education and job sectors that contribute to the booming prison population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1 percent of the nation’s adult population, 2,292,133 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails at year-end 2009. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet make up 49 percent of the prison populace. Year after year the numbers are stark and disproportionate; in 2008 one in 18 men, one in 89 women, one in 13 African-Americans and one in 45 Whites were under correctional control.

More Black men are in America’s prisons than colleges. Education and race seem to be decisive factors in who goes to jail and what age group has the greatest chance of incarceration. Going to prison no longer affects just the individual who committed the crime but, the family and community left behind gain a new burden. The likelihood of committing and falling victim to crime also depends on several demographic characteristics. Overall, men, minorities, the young, and those in less favorable financial positions are more likely to be crime victims, as well as commit crimes.

Why do Black Americans continue to accept the status quo and “White-oriented” system? The American system of justice is skewed and racist and the likelihood of Black males going to prison in their lifetime is 16 percent compared to 2 percent of White males. The way that minorities are treated in America’s criminal justice system is a profound civil rights issue and should cause African-Americans to question the fairness and equality of American justice. The unequal targeting and treatment of minorities at every stage of the criminal justice process—from arrest to sentencing—reinforces the fact of the inequality in the first place, with the unfairness at every successive stage of the process compounding the effects of earlier injustices. The result is a vicious cycle that has evolved into a self-fulfilling prophecy: More minority arrests and convictions perpetuate beliefs that minorities commit more crimes, which in turn leads to racial profiling and more minority arrests.

Some African-Americans buy into current “law and order” concepts that prisons, policing, and surveillance measures “make us safer.” It is time for every person interested in justice and safety to join in and dismantle this racist “establishment” system. Instead of accepting system dictates and calling for “tough on crime” rhetoric and “lock’em up practices”, programs such as the NAACP Criminal Justice Department capture the true goals and aspirations of how public safety and criminal justice institutions should operate and perform in communities. The goal of such programs are to advocate for and advance better public safety systems that reduce the reliance on prisons as means of solving social problems, advance effective law enforcement and removes barriers to voting and employment for formerly incarcerated individuals.

The criminal justice problem can’t be addressed subtly; nothing short of a major social movement can dismantle this American caste system. Black communities will only become safer when more help and services are provided as opposed to prison, when citizens coming home from prison can vote and work freely and when we expand and reinvest our prison budgets on education and other civic institutions that help and serve.

(William Reed is available for speaking/ seminar projects via BaileyGroup.org.)

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