Monday, June 22, 2020

Racial Injustice in the USA

The US jails hold more than 2.2 million people, or 22% of the world's prison population, and has a long history of racism in its prison system. Problems with the US justice system go back a long way,

In 2018, Black people made up 12% of the US adult population but accounted for 33% of people serving a prison sentence, while white people made up 63% of the US adult population, yet just 30% of prison inmates. These figures are drawn from reports by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistics agency of the US Department of Justice. Certain age groups are particularly prominent: in 2018, one out of about 21 Black men aged between 35 and 39 was in prison.

 The 13th Amendment was abused after slaves were liberated following the American Civil War. The amendment states that slavery and forced labor are forbidden in the US — "except as a punishment for crime." Wealthy white people had lost their labor force in one fell swoop, but had their ways of remedying the situation: In the years after the Civil War, African Americans were arrested for trivial offenses and had to do hard labor as part of their prison sentence.

Then, in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon announced the "war on drugs." This campaign against drug-related crime hit the Black community hard — and that was the whole point.  Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman referred to African Americans as being among the "enemies" of the Nixon government. He said that while it was not possible to make it illegal to be Black, it was possible to get the public to associate Black people with heroin. This meant that "we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news."

"Mandatory minimums" were also introduced. These meant that long prison sentences could be imposed for minor possession of drugs. For drugs like crack, which was generally less expensive than cocaine and more often found in the possession of Black people, these mandatory punishments were much longer and handed down for smaller amounts than in the case of drugs like cocaine, which was generally more expensive and more often found in the possession of white people. The "mandatory minimums" leave judges with more or less no discretionary power; even if they would like to give the person involved a second chance, they have to hand down decades long jail sentences.

Poverty is also punished via the bail bond system. A person charged with a crime who cannot afford bail is required to stay in jail until their trial takes place — often for months or even years. Here, African Americans are also disproportionately affected.

Cori Bush, a Democrat running for Congress in the state of Missouri, told DW that "instead of us spending so much money on tear gas in our police departments, instead of spending all of this money on military-grade weapons and military-grade gear and vehicles," cities should invest in schools, health care and job training programs. Diverting money from police budgets to community aid would have direct effects in bringing down the incarceration rate among African Americans, according to Bush. 

"I've been in a place where I didn't know where my next meal was coming from. I made sure my children ate but I didn't know what I was going to eat," Bush said, pointing out that such situations had a negative mental impact on people. She is certain that if there were less poverty, fewer young people without future prospects and fewer hungry children, not as many people would end up in prison.

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