criminal justice

Police Chiefs Address a Broken System

            It’s been 15 months since unarmed African American adolescent Michael Brown was killed by White Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson and the Lost Voices of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter social justice movement forced national attention on America’s broken criminal justice system.  Black Lives Matter continues to inspire numerous long-overdue social justice debates over public safety and criminal justice.   In Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), Angela Davis cautioned about the rhetoric of “reform”:

“Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage.”

Professor Davis goes on to ask,

“How can we take seriously strategies of restorative rather than exclusively punitive justice?”

             In light of Davis’s comments, the October 20th announcement by the police chiefs of major urban cities urging a reduction in incarcerations and arrests definitely got my attention.  Historically, police organizations have vehemently opposed such policies.  Speaking as co-chair of the national Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, Chicago Police Chief Garry F. McCarthy reflectively shared,

“After all the years I’ve been doing this work, I ask myself, ‘What is a crime, and what does the community want?’  When we’re arresting people for low-level offenses — narcotics — I’m not sure we’re achieving what we’ve set out to do. The system of criminal justice is not supporting what the community wants.”

Like a post-structuralist, McCarthy found himself deconstructing the concept of crime and public safety.  McCarthy’s reflection on “what is a crime?” captures what is understated in Diversity and Education:

“Worldviews differ on interpretations of what constitutes a crime and a just punishment.”

             In their statement the police chiefs acknowledged the problem of arrests and incarceration of people who clearly need access to mental health services – rather than simply being thrown into jails and prisons.  Yet, these police leaders left unanswered as to how funding would shift from incarceration to mental health services.  Since the era of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the U.S. has continued to reduce social services for the mentally ill.  Instead, we’ve witnessed a growth of mentally-challenged individuals being homeless or incarcerated. 

              Besides the lack of publicly-funded mental health services to meet the reform aim of McCarthy and his organization, the growth of what Davis named as the prison-industrial complex must be addressed politically.  In essence, the prison-industrial complex is where individuals profit off of incarceration.  While McCarthy and the other police chiefs addressed the exorbitant cost to the public of incarceration, they are silent on the huge political clout that the for-profit prison industry holds over politicians in state and federal legislatures.  That debate is yet to happen in a conservative political climate where mainstream economic policies continue to privilege profit over publicly-funded social services.

"Cruel and Unusual Punishment" of Incarcerated Youth

            California’s decision this month to reform the use of solitary confinement of prisoners brought further attention to the wide-spread use of this medieval method of incarceration.  The use of medieval dungeons in U.S. prisons consistently violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  Solitary confinement in 21st century prison-dungeons are by design a form of torture that leaves its victims – especially young people – socially and psychologically traumatized for life.

            Take the case of Kalief Browder who was imprisoned at the age of 16.  According to the New Yorker, Kalief

spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times.

Surveillance videos secured by New Yorker investigative reporter Jennifer Godderman vividly show “an officer assaulting [Kalief] and of a large group of inmates pummeling and kicking him.”

In 2013 Kalief Browder was released from jail when charges were dropped against him for supposedly stealing a backpack.  As publicity grew over his unjust imprisonment, there was an outpouring of support for him.  But Kalief never recovered from his time in the dungeon: This past June at age 22 Kalief committed suicide. 

Kalief Browder’s cruel treatment, however, is not unusual for U.S. jails and prisons. Unfortunately, his decision to commit suicide is not unusual either.  Solitary Watch reports that

Juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than a juvenile detention facility and 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.

 The U.S. regularly violates international justice agreements that it has signed.  Diversity and Education describes medieval practices of degradation and torture the U.S. uses in its detention of adolescents, including:

  • Solitary confinement 21-24 hours a day despite known research on the negative effects for healthy psychological development
  • Life sentences without parole for juveniles – only nation in the world to do so
  •  Use of shackling as a punishment rather than as a restraint even when not convicted of a crime
  • Juvenile court “trials” without legal representation

With increased news attention to this medieval criminal justice justice system, maybe elected local, state, and federal official will take steps to stop the U.S. from being an international outlaw in its mistreatment of juveniles.  Simply following a 1990 United Nations resolution would be a good start.  In signing onto UN resolution "Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty," the U.S. in principle agreed that

All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned.

Continuing attention to U.S. violations of juvenile human rights can be a start to shifting public opinion away from medieval torture techniques and toward more humane treatment and restorative justice for young people.

Note to Cincinnati Prosecutor: Murders by Police Do Happen in the U.S.

            As we approach the one-year anniversary of the death of unarmed Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, a slow but discernable shift is occurring among some public officials in response to the heightened public awareness brought on by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.  This shift is seen in the legal response of the killing of unarmed African American Samuel Debose in Cincinnati.  The point-blank murder of another unarmed African American by a police officer is unusual in only that a prosecutor choose to do his job and charge the cop for murder

            The prosecutor in this case, however, appears shocked at this incident which is actually part of a larger pattern of racial oppression carried out under the watch of prosecutors across the nations.  He claims,

"This doesn’t happen in the United States, OK? This might happen in Afghanistan. People don’t get shot for a traffic stop."

Too many examples to counter this assertion of American exceptionalism, but isn’t the prosecutor aware of his own state news from just a couple months ago when Cleveland police officers were acquitted for the fatal shootings of two unarmed African Americans sitting in their own car – with 137 shots?  The prosecutor in that case who unsuccessfully tried the Cleveland cops compared the police defendants to an "organized crime syndicate" for their lack of cooperation in the case in their practice of engaging in the unwritten Blue-Wall-of-Silence.

In Urban America and its Police: From the Postcolonial Era through the Turbulent 1960s, Harlan Hahn and Judson Jefferies provide insights on the policing of Black actions from private slave patrols to the rise of modern urban police departments:

"The primary objective of white voters and politicians was to prevent both slave and free black persons from disrupting a segregated social structure, and the police served as an essential instrument of that policy."

This historical pattern that has provided police impunity in their use of violence on Blacks continues, but through the unceasing Black Lives Matter movement we are witnessing a small but significant disruptions to this system. 

Sandra Bland and Smoking While Black

Reflecting on Sandra Bland’s arrest and eventual death while incarcerated in a Texas county jail with its own legacy of White supremacy is an important reminder that historical patterns continue to inform 21st century racial disparities.   What was her “crime”?  Apparently not giving a White police officer the deference required by White custom for Black people since the colonial era and the founding of the United States.

Like the Black youth Emmett Till who in 1955 was visiting relatives in Mississippi and was mutilated and murdered for reportedly flirting with a White woman, Sandra Bland was also from Chicago and refused to follow the deferential custom imposed by Whites on Blacks. 

Like other African Americans who have been despised by Whites and arrested for nearly any concocted reason, Sandra Bland – an educated women on her way to a new job at a local university from which she herself had graduated – was simply asserting her knowledge of her civil rights when she was pulled over for a lane violation while she smoked a cigarette

Although no arrest had been made, the existence of the cigarette so inflamed the White policeman that he threatened Bland while pointing his Taser at her: “I will light you up!”

This scene reminded me of Douglas Blackmons description in Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II of a 1908 world that could result in the arrest of a Black man – or something worse:

So the term for those African American men deemed specifically worthless for their defiant attitudes was ‘cigarette dudes.’ These men were cocky in comparison to their peers; they had learned reading and writing, and sometimes worked and sometimes slouched on street corners. Sometimes cigarettes sat akilter on their lips… Instead of threadbare overalls, the uniform of all blacks and poor country whites for as long as anyone could remember, these men might wear trousers and jackets, even neckties… On their faces an air of defiant confidence, visages of the men they knew they should been allowed to be…

“According to almost every white, these cigarette dudes were the source of every trouble in the South… To be rid of them forever, by whatever means could accomplish that goal, was something nearly every white man in the South…had openly called for and worked toward…”

Contrary to assertions of a post-racial America, overcoming 400 years of racial oppression will take the continuation and expansion of the social justice movement Black Lives Matter.