In the pre-dawn hours of October 26th, 2018, I was arrested for a crime I did not commit - a crime punishable for up to 15 years in prison. If I was born two generations earlier, the allegation alone would have resulted in my lynching. Today, lynching’s are more systematic and judicial than they were 60 years ago. However, the outcomes are similar – to cause irreparable harm and/or death to the mind, body and soul.
The criminal justice system in this country; as it applies to black and brown people, was purposely constructed to not only break you but to destroy you personally, financially and physically. So, let us begin by dispelling the notion that justice is blind, equal and fair; because it is not. The criminal justice system sees two colors – the first being white. As Radley Balko wrote in an article for the Washington Post:
“When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.”
Compared to their Caucasian counterparts, African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to have their cars searched, be arrested for drug use, jailed while awaiting trial, offered plea deals that include prison time, be excluded from juries, serve longer sentences, disenfranchised because of a felony conviction and have their probation revoked (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2015/08/racial-disparities-in-the-criminal-justice-system-eight-charts-illustrating-how-its-stacked-against-blacks.html). Additionally, Caucasians facing misdemeanor charges were 74 percent more likely than African Americans to have all charges carrying potential prison time dropped, dismissed, or reduced. Furthermore, Caucasians with no criminal history were more than 25 percent more likely to have charges reduced than African Americans who also had no criminal history (https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/23/when-race-tips-the-scales-in-plea-bargaining).
The other important color in the criminal justice system is green. Those with the financial means can post bail and hire adequate representation after an arrest. Nearly 70% of inmates; primarily black and brown, are incarcerated in jails because they cannot post bail not because they are guilty of committing a crime. These defendants must rely on overworked public defenders for representation. The prospect of being trapped in jail drives some inmates to plead guilty to offenses they did not commit. The United States and the Philippines are the only two countries that operate a cash bail system.
The criminal injustice system works like this: Prosecutors and judges punish people who we perceive to be criminals to make us think the “justice” system is working. Though 75 percent of the hundreds of thousands of people in local jails are there for nonviolent offenses. Almost nobody in prison ever had a trial. Trials are rare in the criminal injustice system. Over 95 percent of criminal cases are finished by plea bargains. In 1980, nearly 20 percent of criminal cases were tried but that number is reduced to less than three percent because sentences are now so much higher for those who lose trials, there are more punishing drug laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and more power has been given to prosecutors.
You do not have to look far to discover the next Central Park 5 or Kalief Browder in today’s criminal justice system. In jails and prisons across this country they’re people serving time without proper due process. These mostly black and brown people serve time while the rich and affluent commit crimes and face little to no consequences for their actions. If you are poor, black or brown you will face more of a punishment for a nonviolent offense than Amber Guyger who killed a man in his own home, Brock Turner who forcibly raped a woman, Ethan Couch who while driving drunk injured nine and killed four people or former New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo who choked Eric Garner to death for selling single cigarettes.
The physical and psychological effects of going through the criminal injustice system are long lasting. In my 12 months of monitored house arrest I’ve encountered feelings of depression, anger, anxiety and worthlessness. No one will hire me because of my pending charge and if you include lost wages, legal fees, etc. I have incurred over $100,000 in debt but God is with me. Through my difficulties, I was blessed with life (black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops), competent representation and a wonderful support system. Far too many others are not as fortunate and once they encounter this overtly racist system their lives are forever ruined. The color of your skin or your financial means should not outweigh your actual guilt or innocence in a conviction. We owe it to ourselves as a country to ensure justice is dispensed fairly and equally.
“Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.” ― Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow