Is ours a criminal injustice system?

Bryan Stevenson, head of the Birmingham-based Equal Justice Initiative, recently brought a heartfelt message on race, poverty and criminal justice to a conference in California. Here are some uncited facts he shared:

– One in three American black males between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail.

– Fifty to sixty per cent of young black men in America’s urban areas are in jail or prison or on probation or parole.

– Thirty-four per cent of all black men in Alabama have permanently lost the right to vote because of their criminal backgrounds.

Mr. Stevenson’s remarks left me thinking U.S. law enforcement unfairly scapegoats people of color; that the criminal justice system is, in fact, an instrument of injustice.

The counterpoint, of course, is that the system is fundamentally fair; that, anomalies aside, a vast majority of cases don’t involve racist accusers, judges or jurors; that the laws of our land are generally being applied appropriately as written.

In fact, one could argue that the facts Mr. Stevenson presented represent not a criminal justice problem but a character formation problem.

Given the attitudes of people I come in contact with and the mores I see promulgated in mass media, racism appears to be on widespread decline. The rise of non-white artists, athletes and political figures helps make the point.

Most institutions and individuals go overboard to embrace the place that descendants of the discriminated deserve. As well they should. It should be crystal clear that humans of all shades are images of the divine, full of God-given giftedness and potential.

Despite our advances, though, there seems to exist what Stanford University’s Shelby Steele calls “a stubborn nostalgia for America’s racist past.”

He elaborates, “The civil rights community and the liberal media live by the poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society, and that this remains the great barrier to black equality. But this ‘truth’ has a lot of lie in it.”

This nostalgia causes some people to subtly blame misbehavior and associated accusation on racist motives; it prompts others to loudly label any bi-racial incident involving a black as race-driven (e.g., Trayvon Martin vs. George Zimmerman; Cambridge policeman vs. Harvard professor).

I can’t disagree that there is a disproportionate number of blacks in our nation’s jails. I just don’t think racist or even socioeconomic discriminators put them there.

We should focus on the factors that did put them there: unstable family units, toxic stereotypes (e.g., being smart and working hard is “acting white”), low educational expectations, minimal economic opportunities, public assistance dependence, weak spiritual leadership, etc.

I concede that our criminal justice system needs some overhauling, especially if the rumors of sexual and physical abuse are remotely accurate.

But I don’t think we should take laws off the books to reduce prison and probation populations. I don’t think we should commute sentences based on race.

And neither do I think we should turn a blind eye to evil in certain parts of town just because we don’t need any more of a demographic behind our bars. That simply wouldn’t do justice to the victims there.

Kevin Thompson is a weekly columnist for The Boerne Star. Follow him at www.kwt.info.

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