As we welcome Black History Month, one thing that can’t be forgotten is the disproportionate incarceration and legal mistreatment of Black and brown people that’s withstood the test of time. But its momentum has been slowed as of late through a series of acts of criminal justice reform that have been in the works for many decades.
Most recently, celebrities like Kim Kardashian have surprisingly become the face of criminal justice reform because of her influence over President Donald Trump, who has taken steps to address the issue by signing his First Step Act into law over the past summer. It freed 31,000 inmates over what the Washington Post described as “a change in how their good-behavior time is calculated.”
In addition, Trump also commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother who had already served more than 20 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense.
But while the president’s actions were commendable, they hardly put a dent into the efforts to truly reform criminal justice in America. That was more than evident when Kalief Browder was jailed at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island after being accused of robbing a teen of his backpack. His family couldn’t afford bail and he spent three years locked up and enduring beatings from prison guards and inmates, as well as 400 days in solitary confinement.
Charges against Browder, who always maintained his innocence, were eventually dropped. Authorities released him from jail, but he was a physically and psychologically damaged young man. On June 6, 2015, Browder hanged himself with an air conditioning cord at his home. He was only 22.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) pointed to five issues of criminal justice reform that have long needed attention.
The death penalty:
America has a sordid history of enforcing capital punishment, even when it was conducted by martial law in the form of lynchings. As the death penalty eventually became law, Michigan in 1846 “became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Later, Rhode Island and Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center website. But by the time of the Civil War, which was fought for and against keeping Black people enslaved, ultimately paving the way for alternate means of execution like the electric chair. While support for the death penalty dropped around the 1950s, a Gallup poll found that public support for the death penalty was back on the rise in 2018, showing that criminal justice reform advocates still very much have their work cut out for them moving forward.
Children in adult prisons:
This issue has become publicized recently through immigration laws that have criminalized migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. by locking up minors with adults. However, that problem was far from new in the U.S. Black children are five times as likely to be incarcerated than white youth, according to the EJI. And the Root reported that “thousands” of Black minors are imprisoned alongside adults. “Forty-seven percent of the youth transferred from juvenile courts to adult courts are black, despite the fact that black children make up approximately 14 percent of the total youth population,” the Roor wrote.
“Thirty years ago, there were 2,300 kids held in adult jails,” the Prison Policy Initiative wrote in 2018. As of 2016, that same population had ballooned to 3,700.
This is a problem that persists to this day and, of course, lopsidedly affects Black people. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, “Black people are 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people.”
The Innocence Project has been fighting against wrongful convictions and working to reform the criminal justice system since 1992. It focuses on using DNA as a means to achieve exonerations, something the benefitted the so-called Central Park 5, better known now as the Exonerated 5.
Excessive punishment comes in many forms, but one of the most egregious versions began with President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” in 1971 which, like much of the other above examples, has disproportionately affected Black people. “Between 1980 and 2011, arrests of African Americans for violent and property crimes fell, but rose dramatically for drug offenses,” EJI wrote. That turned into the “Three Strikes” law in 1993 that called for life imprisonment with a third felony conviction. That, in turn, paved the way for the infamous 1994 Crime Bill that aimed to increase imprisonments. It was barely a year ago that the U.S. Supreme Court banned “excessive fines,” which law enforcement has wielded as a weapon against the poor to boost incarceration dates.
However, there is still much work to be done against excessive punishments in 2020.
Prison conditions became a big deal recently with the deadly Mississippi prison riots that exposed how inmates were living in squalor. The 1994 crime bill only exacerbated this issue as prison populations swelled.