Recently, the American Ornithological Society vowed to change the English names of all bird species currently named after people, along with any other bird names deemed offensive or exclusionary. A noteworthy move, but can we reform the criminal justice system for violating the rights of its offenders and perpetuating inequalities?
The criminal system is often regarded as one that works efficiently, accurately, and prudently, putting behind bars those who harm our society. Criminals are given appropriate punishment, victims are provided with relief, and we all get to enjoy a crime-free society where everyone who follows the law is safe and sound. Yet, that could not be farther from the truth. Our criminal justice system not only nurtures but harnesses unethical and discriminatory practices that subjugate groups of people, especially juveniles. In the words of Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We need to rectify a broken system even if it does not directly affect us because the threats of injustice affect our humanity and our democracy.
As a professor of Entrepreneurship, my recent experience of advising a student team proposing innovative ways of re-integrating individuals with prior convictions back into society and enabling their return to normal lives in one of my classes was eye-opening. I was struck by statistics that people of color represent about 30% of the United States’ population but comprise 60% of those imprisoned. As a parent of a teenager, more alarming, perhaps, was the revelation that young children are typically pushed into juvenile systems early in life. The gross violations of human rights and their long-term implications for our future generations became apparent after hearing my daughter’s narrative as she prepared to advocate for the cause on behalf of her high school. As we shared our joint privilege of not living in a community that is over-policed or a state that actively exercises the death penalty, I felt obligated to invite her to lead the conversation in this piece and make her voice heard.
According to The Institute to End Mass Incarceration, mass incarceration is defined as a network of policing prosecution, surveillance, debts, and at its very root – social control – that is deeply intertwined with racial inequality and oppression. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, those who have been incarcerated remain set up for failure, facing a loss of voting rights and a perpetual struggle to find a job upon release in the face of mounting debts accumulated from their time in prison. Mass incarceration severely impacts families, with 50 to 60% of those in state prisons being parents. The economic impact of incarceration in the United States is an astounding $80 billion dollars, the hidden costs that affect families being a staggering $531 billion dollars. Per the Equal Justice Initiative, children bear the biggest brunt as families are broken and income is lost, with offspring of those who have been incarcerated being six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves.
The lack of qualified teachers and even basic resources such as textbooks in low-income communities are the other key factors impacting early incarceration. Due to zero-tolerance policies in impoverished settings, disciplinary action often involves the police for minor infractions. Students who are suspended and expelled are more than three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile system. Again, people of color suffer disproportionately, with black students being more than three times as likely to be suspended and expelled than their white counterparts.
The school-to-prison pipeline sets up young children for a vicious circle of poverty and violence. According to the Atlantic, 80 teenage offenders were regularly locked up in solitary confinement in the Onondaga County Justice Center, New York, in 2016, with photocopies of workbooks being their only means of education. Imprisoned in jail, these kids were 65 to 70% more likely to develop mental disorders. Yet, our criminal justice system prefers handcuffs over hand holding, jail bars over hospital beds, and solitary confinement over therapeutic support, only aggravating these problems. Many are denied basic mental health treatment and suicide prevention care. Instead, they are locked up and subjected to inhumane practices that further degrade their condition.
The case of Trina Garnett, a young girl from a poor city in Pennsylvania, is especially disturbing. As detailed in the book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, Trina lived a traumatic childhood severely beaten and abused by her father. One day, as she snuck into the home of another boy, she knocked over a candle, spreading fire in the house and causing two to die from asphyxiation. At 14 years of age, Trina was deemed a murderer and tried as an adult. She was convicted for life without parole, in complete disregard of her age, mental illness, and the abuse that she had suffered. Following rape by a police officer at a state correctional facility, Trina gave birth while handcuffed to a bed. In Arushi’s words, the obvious lack of human rights cannot be more apparent than in this case.
So, what can we do to ensure that the criminal justice system protects our juveniles? First, we need to hire more teachers and provide more resources to implement an early education system that retains rather than expels its students. Second, we must regard those who are incarcerated as human beings with basic rights. Let us work towards fairer prison sentences that are mindful of the age and mitigating circumstances of those convicted. Third, restorative justice, focused on group healing and therapy, conflict mediation, and reconciliation, is needed to ensure that first-time young criminals do not become repeat offenders.
Finally, we must recognize our own roles as parents or children in preventing the gross violations of human rights of our future generations. As parents, the onus rests on us to instill a sense of social responsibility in our children at an early age. We need not live in a low-income community to volunteer our time and mentor teachers and educators about the power of a strong moral and ethical code, as opposed to police action, as a disciplinary mechanism. Our children must live without fear if they are to protect their own dignity as well as that of their less privileged counterparts.