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USAs Criminal Justice System: Is the Opposite of Poverty Justice?

I recently watched a brilliant TED talk presented in March 2012 by Bryan Stevenson, a remarkable public-interest lawyer who specializes in capital punishment litigation. Founder and executive director of a private, nonprofit organization called the Equal Justice Initiative, Mr. Stevenson has dedicated most of his life to diminishing the occurrence of unfair sentencing in the Criminal Justice System of the United States. His speech addressed numerous controversial realities such as racial inequalities and incarceration rates, innocent prisoners on death row, and children prosecuted as adults. However, it was not necessarily due to the content of his dissertation that provoked the strongest standing ovation ever seen at TED– rather, it was his capacity to insightfully address and encompass many core underlying themes of the American society. After having listened to the TED talk, I felt the implicit need to address these greater ideas, in the hope of stressing its importance and enlightening those who are still in the dark. 

The incarceration rate in the U.S. is the highest in the world. Furthermore, the United States has a higher percent of imprisoned minorities than any other country in the world. Thus, it is easily plausible to fathom the $60.3 billion budget expenditure along with it. There are currently more black people in jails than in colleges and universities. Winston Churchill once opined that one could judge a society by looking at its prisons. By that reasoning, a society should ideally address its criminal justice system as part of solving its problems. The U.S. criminal justice system is doing the exact opposite- proving to be among the country’s most apparent failures.

The United States is the only country, besides Somalia and South Sudan, which refuses to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is due to a provision (Article 37) that forbids both the death penalty and life imprisonment for children. Such harsh regulations result in cases where 13-year-old children are left to die in prison due to the possibility of imprisonment without parole.

Additionally, the country includes a death penalty defined by error. One out of nine people convicted to death row are found to be innocent. If we were to compare this to any other industry, this would be indisputably unacceptable. Stevenson provided the example of aviation. If we knew that for every 9 planes that were to take off, 1 of them would crash, we certainly would not fly. Yet, since the occurrence of facing the death penalty is so infrequent, it does not seem to be a burden that the American population can attest to.

A fundamental change must occur. The present structure is a system deeply distorted by race and poverty. It is a system that favors the rich and the guilty over the poor and innocent. In the American criminal justice system, “wealth, not culpability shapes outcomes”, states Stevenson. Yet again, Americans seem to be very comfortable.

The tendency to deem a societal problem to be an inextricably unaccountable phenomenon is seen time and again. We gravitate towards the conception that whatever the problem is, as long as it doesn’t specifically affect us, it is not our struggle. Our initial instinct is to disconnect. In Western democratic societies, the level of disenfranchisement for topics we are uncomfortable with is much too high. The crime response complex in the Unites States has effectively re-forged a historically troubled linkage between race, crime, and the functioning of the legal system. The unthinkable punishment situation in America has caused a real threat to the promise of equality before the law. Ultimately, we must remember that our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. Stevenson denotes: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done…and because of that, there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law”.

In such a state, we may wonder whether or not the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but instead justice. The politics of punishment stands on the basis of fear and anger. When people are scared and angry, they tend to do things that are abusive– and that is how bad crimes turn into bad policy. Americans mustn’t get carried away with the rhetoric of punishment as a means of solving crimes. The current punishment philosophy does no good for anybody. “Ultimately you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat the rich, and the powerful, and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it is in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are”, Stevenson says. Although an immense adjustment is required, we have already begun to see a shift.

Since Stevenson’s speech two years ago, there has been major notable progress. Immediately after his presentation, over $1 million was raised by attendees. A week after giving that talk, he was in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing that the death penalty for minors was unconstitutional. Three months later, the court granted the motion. Presently his group, EJI, has extended that work; trying to end the practice of putting children into adult prisons, and having children tried as adults. In addition, we have also seen the termination of Three Strikes laws in California, and the first slight decrease in prison populations in many years.

– Lara Gosselin

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About Lara Gosselin

Concordia University Undergraduate student, Majoring in Political Science with a double Minor in Law & Society and Marketing. Lara has lived in Montreal for the past seven years, although remains tied to her hometown of Toronto. Her interest in U.S. politics derives from her numerous travels across the country, and second home in the southern-state of Florida. Lara joined the Political Bouillon in hopes to contribute to the active and opinionated student atmosphere of the city.

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