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Thoughts on the American “justice” system

It is common knowledge that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Approximately two million people are incarcerated in the U.S., and yet most Americans ignore the simple fact that our prison system is continuously failing us and those it is meant to rehabilitate and reform. The U.S. justice system in general is a joke. As seen through police corruption and racism that was highlighted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and earlier Trayvonn Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and unfortunately many, many more, justice is not always the focus of those who promise to protect and serve. Justice isn’t always the focus of those who try and sentence accused criminals, and justice is rarely the focus of the politicians who nominate said racially and politically biased judges to state courts. This isn’t a surprise or a change from the original goals of the “justice” system though. In the American South in particular, the prison system and policing were largely created to enforce white supremacy and prolong a form of slavery. Racism and classism still linger in every aspect of American life, and the “justice” system is a startling example of the prolonged injustices that exist in the nation. 

Prison populations are overwhelmingly disproportionate when it comes to race classification. White populations are underrepresented within the prison system, while Black populations are extremely overrepresented, quite notably when it comes to extreme sentences. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 41.6 percent of people on death row or who have been on death row are Black, despite only 13.4 percent of the U.S. population being Black. 42.15 percent of people on death row or who have been on death row are white, while white people make up 55.8 percent of the U.S. population. This does not mean Black individuals commit more crimes, or commit more serious crimes than their white counterparts, but it means that sentences tend to be heavier for Black individuals due to structural bias within the judicial system. Additionally, it means that police officers tend to frequent Black neighborhoods due to their internal biases and racist assumptions, which leads to a higher arrest level despite similar crime levels across racial lines. 

Next, part of what sparked my interest to write this article lies in wrongful convictions. The wrongful conviction rate is approximately 6 percent in general prison populations in the United States, according to a study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2018. At face value this does not seem like a lot, but 6 percent of the approximate two million people incarcerated is 120,000 people. Around 120,000 people in the United States are serving time for a crime they did not commit. Terrifyingly, some of these people are on death row. According to a February 2021 report by Witness to Innocence, “an organization of, by, and for death row exonerees,” 4.1 percent of people on death row are likely innocent due to exoneration statistics, and around 20 people have been killed on death row despite very strong evidence of innocence. One case that sticks out to me is the case of Walter McMillian, an Alabaman man unlawfully held on death row for over a year prior to his trial and who spent six years there after being wrongfully convicted until he was exonerated in 1993. McMillian, a well respected Black man, was convicted of murder despite having a solid alibi and piles of evidence proving his innocence. The system worked against him every step of the way. Racism ingrained in the justice system, particularly that of the American South, painted McMillian as a monster and used him as a scapegoat for the failure of the Monroeville, AL police department. Another troubling example of wrongful conviction is that of Larry Griffin. Mr. Griffin was convicted of murder in 1981 and executed in 1995. Throughout his years in prison, Griffin maintained his innocence. Years after his execution, an NAACP investigation determined that significant evidence pointed to his innocence. Wallace Conners, a survivor of the shooting that Griffin was convicted of, was never contacted prior to the trial to tell his version of events. Conners claims that Larry Griffin was “definitely” not in the car that drove by and killed Quinton Moss, according to an article by NBC  News. Additionally, a police officer who was first to arrive on the scene of the crime has given an account that undermines key witness testimony, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

These cases are unfortunately not a surprise due to the lack of passion for true justice that can be seen in the American judicial system. Individual police officers likely have different perspectives on what justice means to them, but structural bias and racism has gotten in the way of what law enforcement is actually meant to do. Even during the exoneration process when there is significant evidence pointing to innocence, officers such as Sheriff Tate, who arrested Walter McMillian, claim that their investigations were legitimate. Exoneration for Black defendants takes an average of 4.3 years longer than exoneration for white defendants, even when those who arrested the innocent “withheld … evidence, generated false … evidence, and subjected [the accused] to gross racial insults and relentless intimidation,” such as Sheriff Tate did to McMillian. Attempting to exonerate innocent prisoners takes far too long when the racist status quo is upheld in every aspect of the exoneration process, from district attorneys to lower court judges. 

Failures of the American judicial system do not only affect racial minorities, but children as well. These issues are also not limited to death sentences and false convictions. According to the Washington Post, around 15 percent of the U.S. prison population is in for life; that is about 300,000 people. On top of this, the United States is the only country that allows life without parole sentences to be imposed on people under 18. While 25 states have banned this sentencing, there are still 25 that allow such an extreme sentence to be burdened on juveniles. As expected, juveniles who are serving life without parole have had very hard childhoods. According to The Sentencing Project, 79 percent of these children have witnessed regular violence in their homes. 80 percent of girls reported physical abuse, 77 percent reported sexual abuse. Prison is no place for juveniles, due to its violent nature and the psychological challenges it imposes on its residents, but some youth are tried as adults and sent to adult facilities. Around 250,000 youth are tried or incarcerated as adults in the United States each year.  Those who sentence these children as adults ignore the facts that youth in adult facilities are at very high risk of sexual abuse, and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network. Some juveniles are put into solitary confinement for their own safety after being sexually assaulted or raped while in adult facilities—essentially being punished for being a victim. 

Indigent defendants are also at high risk of wrongful conviction and are often subjected to poor defense. There is a serious shortage of public defenders in the United States, particularly a shortage of passionate and adequate public defenders. Attorneys are often given more cases than they can properly handle, some defending 100 or more people at a time. They are quick to burn out, and severely underpaid for how much work they are expected to be doing. According to the New York Times, approximately 80 percent of criminal defendants are unable to afford a lawyer and are appointed a public defender. This shortage of proper attorneys for each defendant has made the right to counsel, as guaranteed to us by the 6th amendment of the Constitution, essentially impossible for those unable to afford counsel. Indigent defendants may be given an attorney, but one who is overworked and unable to give each of their clients the proper time needed to create a reasonably effective defense. 

Prisoners’ mental health also comes to mind when discussing all of the downfalls of the “justice” system. Poor individuals who suffer from mental health issues or mental disabilities are more likely to suffer at the hands of the law. Being unable to pay for treatments could cause people to break laws unknowingly and be imprisoned through no fault of their own, such as the case of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD. Defense often fails to bring up mental health issues, causing accused mentally ill people to be charged for crimes they committed while unwell. Additionally, mental health issues are likely to worsen in prison due to high levels of stress and the likelihood of inadequate care and medication. 

Some may believe the prison system and its violence, inadequate living conditions and poor mental health care acts as a deterrent from those committing crimes post-release, but this is exactly the opposite of the reality in the United States. We have among one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. A study conducted in 2005 and updated in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice noted that 44 percent of released prisoners were arrested at least once within one year of their release, and this number grows each year post-release. So why do we continue to put people behind bars? Why do we make people suffer rather than attempt to truly reform? The answer lies in the root of much of America’s problems—because it’s what we have always done. Changing this now may make citizens afraid of living among former prisoners, who are assumed to be violent and crazed. There is a stigma that has yet to be broken and likely won’t be in the near future. 

Prison in the United States is hell. It is one big problem that an article this short cannot begin to scratch the surface of. The American South has created a tradition of harsh sentences and upholding the death penalty as a new form of slavery. Prisoners—disproportionately people of color—have been put to work like slaves, being punished for the failures of the government and the justice system as a whole. The death penalty itself was first used as a type of legally acceptable lynching in the South. The Atlanta Black Star wrote in 2015 that the South shifted to capital punishment as a way to legally satisfy a “lust for revenge” rooted in the U.S.’ history of racism. There is much that needs to be done to reform such a system that has so little care for what its name entails. There is no justice when hundreds of thousands of people are wrongfully convicted. There is no justice when racism is what fuels the courts and pays private companies who own prisons in America with each new inmate behind bars. There is nothing just about our “justice” system. 

*Author recommended reading: “Just Mercy” (2014) by Bryan Stevenson

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