“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.
“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.
“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.
In his book United, Senator Cory Booker addresses the problem of recidivism in the United States criminal justice system, and asks if society should be doing more to reduce the rates of people continuing crime after serving time and facing subsequent arrests. Many people return to prison after completing sentences for non-violent crimes and the ideas about why and the solutions put forward to reduce relapse into negative behavior are varied. Booker argues that our system is currently not set up in a way to help re-integrate prisoners and that the system creates larger burdens for minority and poor individuals.
Booker writes, “People have themselves to blame for their decisions; that is undeniable. But don’t we have a legal obligation to structure a system that is balanced, not savagely slanted against minorities and the poor?” He focuses on the personal responsibility for our decisions and actions, but shows that our decisions and actions do not take place inside a vacuum. Society is a contributing factor, and how we structure our system can in many ways shape how people respond and whether negative actions and behaviors seem to be worth the cost or seem to be the only option one has. Booker continues, “Don’t we have a moral responsibility to offer redemption to someone who has paid his debt instead of unyielding retribution against him and his family?”
We are in a challenging place where many of our jobs are becoming service and technology jobs focused on our mind and not on our physical strength. As we move in this direction, our jobs require that we handle more sensitive information and have more interactions with the people that a business depends on. In these jobs, integrity is important, and employers increasingly avoid hiring people that have been arrested. Previous convictions serves as a measuring stick for integrity. As jobs move away from physical labor, we end up with fewer opportunities for those who have past convictions.
Many government programs also require background checks for individuals and felony or misdemeanor charges can make someone ineligible for things like housing assistance. As a result, individuals who may struggle to find a job also end up being ineligible for government assistance and are stuck in a situation where their only option appears to be more criminal activity.
These individuals may have more opportunities than turning to continued criminal activity, but in a world where everything seems to be telling them that they are no longer a worthy human being, it can be understandable that someone slips back to crime. The way we treat people who have been arrested often does not align with our beliefs that everyone deserves a second chance. The system as it is set up now does offer some supports for those who have been arrested and need help re-joining society, but our actions seem to show that we would rather isolate those who have been to jail rather than help them re-join society, change their behaviors and actions, and have a second chance. At some point we must look at where we have drawn the line between personal responsibility for negative actions and behaviors, social responsibility for crime and recidivism, and acceptable and appropriate punishment. I believe that at some level we don’t actually care about those who are arrested, and instead choose to draw a line in the moral sand because punishing those who are less moral than we are allows us to feel good about ourselves. In this view, the punishment of others is not about those who have done wrong at all, it is simply about making ourselves feel superior.