In a flashback to prior times, a bi-partisan consensus just prior to the new year resulted in the passage of the First Step Act. This Bill begins to chip away at a justice system that has been dubbed an “injustice” system. The cost had become so egregious – in people terms and money terms – that some action was finally taken. And that action was spearheaded by some highly unlikely allies.
First, some of the facts that spurred the action (sources available):
- The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but 24% of the world’s prison population.
- In forty years, the U.S. penal population has exploded from around 300,000 to 2,300,000.
- The U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China and Iran.
- In Germany 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S., the rate is roughly 8 times that, or 750 per 100,000.
A few facts that indicate the disproportionate cost to minorities:
- Police arrest Blacks at 3.7 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, despite numerous studies showing that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. Some studies show that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than People of Color.
- One in every 15 African-American men experience incarceration in comparison to one in every 106 white men.
- Criminal activity does not correlate with race. Criminal activity correlates with poverty. Crime rates are virtually identical in neighborhoods with comparable rates of poverty, regardless of racial make-up. (I found this fact particularly startling – which reveals some of my own implicit bias)
- Unarmed African-Americans are killed by police at 6x the rate of unarmed whites.
African-Americans constitute 12% of the U.S. population, but compose 40% of all inmates and 42% of those sentenced to death.
The injustices in the system can be traced to the introduction of slavery, but the explosion of imprisonment and targeting of Black people erupted in the Nixon era. One small piece of evidence from John Ehrlichman, Aide to President Nixon:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war on Blacks, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The injustice inherent in the current system had become so undeniable, that conservative leaders had begun to publicly acknowledge the disparities, e.g.:
“Today, far too many young men – and in particular African-American young men – find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor, nonviolent drug infractions.” Sen. Ted Cruz
“As I’ve learned more about the criminal justice system, I’ve come to believe it’s something that’s going to keep the two Americas separate.” Sen. Rand Paul
Despite all the evidence that serious reform was needed, how could that ever occur in a political milieu characterized by entrenched partisanship?
A crucial alliance emerged outside Washington when two former adversaries began to listen to one another: Mark Holden is Sr. VP and General Counsel for Koch Industries, the base of the powerful Koch brothers, a major funding source for conservative candidates and causes. Van Jones is a progressive commentator for CNN News and a former Obama staffer. Watch this 5-minute video of the two of them explaining how their adversarial stances morphed into collaboration on criminal justice reform: MarkHolden/VanJones.
This Bill is called the First Step Act in acknowledgment of the fact that it is not a comprehensive solution. In fact, Jones and the Bill’s more liberal supporters have been criticized for endorsing this, for fear that the remaining issues will be back-burnered, and conservatives can claim that they’ve already “done so much”.
“Things are better.” is a far cry from “Things are right.” Studies consistently indicate that the justice system mirrors the collective American mindset, i.e.:
- A penchant for punishment vs. rehabilitation, reconciliation or restorative justice.
- A documented bias against People of Color – from first contact through post-incarceration.
Much remains to be done. Still, there is a glimmer of hope in this episode of cooperative effort.
I’m taking some time to recharge batteries for the next couple of months, so I won’t be listing the usual “Resources” and “Action”. I do, however, recommend the Van Jones book “Beyond the Messy Truth: How we came apart; how we come together” – hopeful and challenging reading for people anywhere on the political spectrum!