By Victoria Campbell
The purpose of this proposal is to:
- Introduce the reader to the injustices plaguing our criminal justice system
- Emphasize the urgency of these issues
- Inspire a desire in the reader to spread this information by hosting a Criminal Justice Week at their re- spective college or university
I believe the criminal justice system is broken, and it does not receive the widespread attention it deserves in the mainstream. Did you know that over 2 million humans in the US are sitting in eight-foot by six-foot cages?1 Or that out of these people, 465,000 people locked up have not even been convicted? And an additional 61,000 are locked up for minor parole violations (2). We need to start challenging the widely-accepted belief that prison was designed to keep our society safe.
Why isn’t this covered in most traditional academic settings? Why is this not talked about more? I often wondered this and decided that it is time to get other people to start paying attention.
The goal of this proposal is to encourage people to hold a series of events at their college or university that would educate students about the criminal justice system. The bottom of this document contains a list of ideas on how the criminal justice system can relate to people with various disciplines and interests, and it also contains a list of resources for participants in the week of activities.
What is the problem?
1. The justice system perpetuates institutionalized racism & classism.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, while it is one in 17 for white men. We are conditioned by the society that we live in to believe that poor minorities commit more crimes, and the power that the criminal justice system wields is rarely challenged.
A. Law Enforcement – Why is it that certain people can break the law and re- receive a slap on the wrist, while others face life-changing consequences? Part of this comes from the fact that certain crime is visible, while other crime happens in the privacy of one’s home. The Broken Windows theory states that “visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil dis- order create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder” is often used as a pretext for discriminatory policing. Police often target areas perceived to have higher crime rates, meaning that the likelihood that they encounter minor crimes in these areas is higher than places with fewer officers (1/3). We are led to believe that there is more crime in certain areas; if police patrol in these areas more they will encounter more crime. This would also be true in upper-class suburban areas, but because the police are not around to see it, these people are not scrutinized at the same level and therefore will not be caught.
It is no wonder that these increased police presence in lower-income areas re- results in a society in which people of color are disproportionately victims of police brutality. “A 2013 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that while black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 made up only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 40.6 percent of the stop-and-frisk checks by police. More than 90 percent of those stopped were innocent”(4). Police have the power to use their discretion to target individuals who look suspicious, but the majority of the time, their discretion is deeply rooted in their perception of what a criminal is supposed to look like.
B. The Courts – Our court system unfairly impacts people of color as well as those with lower incomes. “According to the American Civil Liberties Union, sentences imposed on black men in the federal system are nearly 20 percent longer than those for whites convicted of similar crimes” (4). We are led to believe that minorities are committing more crimes, when in fact that is not the case at all. Not only that, but people of low income are also discriminated against by our court system. Lack of financial resources keeps 465,000 unconvicted people in jail because they are too poor to afford cash bail.
C. The Prison System – The parallels between slavery and the prison system are abundant. The 13th Amendment ended slavery but allows involuntary servitude as a punishment. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Black slaves were a source of cheap labor for their rich white owners. Today, prisons sell inmates’ labor to private corporations. For example, in California, inmates get paid $1/hour to fight dangerous wildfires, and yet are prohibited from those same jobs after release due to their criminal record (2).(Largely) Black – filled-prisons provide a source of cheap labor for these large corporations. In Pennsylvania, inmates are paid as little as $0.19/hour (3). The living conditions in prisons are atrocious. According to the re-entry coordinator at the Northampton County Prison, a place that consists of mostly non-violent offenders who are serving 2 years or less, the inmates living in the old part of the facility are required to stay in their cells for 23 hours per day. This building contains no air conditioning, and inmates are given bags of ice to cool themselves off during particularly hot days in the summer. Nobody should be forced to live in these conditions.
2. The justice system fails to target the root cause of crime.
People are led to believe that locking criminals up is the best way to deter crime, but we often fail to ask: why have people been imprisoned in the first place? And is prison really helping to prevent- criminal acts in the future?
A. Mental Illness– There are currently 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness (schizophrenia, schizo-affective, bipolar disorder, major depression, brief psychotic disorder) in jails and state prisons.5 This begs some important questions: how does imprisoning people impact their mental health? Does the lack of freedom, isolation from society, and inability to frequently see friends and family help those with mental illness? Does it prepare them for a life out in their communities? Lack of proper access to medication and healthcare and over-crowded cells for inmates leaves many in worse conditions than when they entered the prison system. If the ultimate goal of the justice system is to reduce crime, then putting people into toxic environments is not an effective solution. This is not to say that mental health issues are always the cause of crime for people who have them, but highlights the fact that locking people up who have these issues is not going to rehabilitate these individuals
B. Drug Addiction – “Of the 2.3 million U.S. inmates, 1.5 million suffer from substance abuse addiction and another 458,000 inmates either had histories of substance abuse, were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of committing their crimes; committed their offenses to get money to buy drugs; as well as those with lower incomes. “According to the American Civil Liberties Union, sentences imposed on black men in the federal system are nearly 20% longer than those for whites convicted of similar crimes”. We are led to believe that minorities are committing more crimes, when in fact that is not the case at all. Not only that, but people of low income are also discriminated against by our court system. Lack of financial resources keeps 465,000 unconvicted people in jail because they are too poor to afford cash bail.
C. The Prison System – The parallels between slavery and the prison system are abundant. The 13th amendment ended slavery but allows involuntary servitude as a punishment. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Black slaves were a source of cheap labor for their rich white owners. Today, prisons sell inmates’ labor to private corporations. In California, in- mates get paid $1/hour to fight dangerous wildfires and are prohibited from those same jobs after release. (Largely) Black-filled prisons provide a source of cheap labor for these large corporations. In Pennsylvania, inmates are paid as little as $0.19/hour (5). The living conditions in prisons are atrocious. According to the re-entry coordinator at the Northhampton County Prison, a place that consists of mostly non-violent offenders who are serving 2 years or less, the inmates living in the old part of the facility are required to stay in their cells for 23 hours per day.
C. Collective, Community, and Inter-Generational trauma – When traumatic events continuously impact a family or community, this trauma can be passed down to further generations. “Traumatic events exact an enormous psychological and physical toll on survivors, and often have ramifications that must be endured for decades. This includes emotional scars, and in many cases standards of living are diminished, often never recovering to levels that existed prior to the trauma” (6). If generations upon generations of a family end up in the system, then there is a deeper issue waiting to be addressed, requiring different methods and a new way of thinking about imprisonment.
3. Punishment of the offender is prioritized over the healing of the community.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We often hear from politicians that they want to be “tough” on crime. Rarely do we hear about healing the victim. Fortunately, there are alternatives that address both the needs of the victim and the offender.
Restorative justice is one possible alternative. It is a process that “views crime not as a depersonalized breaking
of the law but as a wrong against another person. It attends to the broken relationships between three players: the offender, the victim, and the community” (7). If the perpetrator of a crime is able to hear how their actions impacted others around them, not just the victim, but the family of the victim, the friends, the neighborhood, the whole community, whoever this crime may have impacted, it would allow those affected to have an understanding and a sense of closure. This puts a face, name, and story to the perpetrator and the victim. It also allows the community to see that the offender is not a bad person, but someone who made a mistake.
Currently, there is not much in place to address the harm done to the victims of the crime, and all of the attention is on the punishment of the offender. In restorative justice practices, the offender also grows because they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and deal with the consequences of their actions. Studies have shown that restorative justice has been proven to decrease the rate of recidivism. If the goal of the justice system is to reduce crime then their outcome should be low crime and recidivism rates, and we should adopt programs that are most effective in achieving this.
Colleges and universities should hold a Criminal Justice Week.
As institutions of higher learning, it is the responsibility of colleges and universities to bring the issues of society to light. In order to evoke social change, we must challenge the preconceived notions we hold onto so tightly. We must expose our minds to alternative ideas and points of view in order to grow mentally and fulfill our existential duty to give back to our planet and the people who live in it.
This week would consist of a series of activities that expose students to the criminal justice system. This document contains suggestions on how this could be related to students of various studies.
What are the goals of Criminal Justice Week?
1. To erase the stigma that criminals are bad people – Many believe the criminal justice system maintains law and order, but in reality, it is used to target the “unwanted” individuals in society. The system, that many believe keeps society safe, has turned a third of American adults into criminals and ex-convicts (4). This holds many back from opportunities in the future even after release, such as the ability to vote, easily find a job, or merely be seen as an equal member of society. College and university students are the next generations of people to tackle the most pressing issues of our world, and it is up to us to decide if we want to continue the status quo or change the system. Currently, we stigmatize criminals and are taught to believe they are dangerous and bad people, but that line of thinking holds us back from looking deeper at the issues of the system. If students were able to look past that stigma – even just for the brief period of a criminal justice week and see criminals as just ordinary people who have made some mistakes, this stigma could slowly be erased over time. Our mental block holding us back from im- proving our own society would be lifted, and we would be more prepared to start figuring out solutions.
2. To educate students who have never been exposed to the injustices within the criminal justice system – There are a multitude of reasons why a student may not have any knowledge about the issues highlighted in this document. Perhaps, they came from a privileged background and never had a negative interaction with law enforcement. Maybe no one in their family has been arrested. Maybe their parents work within the system and they were raised to not see these issues. Regardless of the reason, it is important to introduce differing perspectives to people to broaden their minds and help them empathize with those negatively impacted by the system. There is a population of students at every university who fear every day that they or someone they love will be targeted unjustifiably by the system. It is your responsibility to create an environment that recognizes the needs of every student at your university regardless of their background.
3. To start a dialogue that will help inspire change – In order to change the criminal justice system, it is necessary
to approach the issue from many different angles. Colleges and universities are home to a wide variety of students, who are studying different subjects, have different worldviews, and grew up in many different situations … bring us one step closer towards finding a solution. How we will choose to handle crime is ultimately our generation’s decision. Do we want to prevent future crime from happening, or do we want to hide the problems and hope they disappear?
What can colleges and universities do?
The criminal justice system relates to many fields of study, but it is not given the widespread attention it deserves on our nation’s campuses. Introducing the wider student body to the problems within the justice system will allow students from other fields to think about issues they may have never considered before through their own unique perspectives. It will open their eyes to the world and allow them to view it more critically.
Campuses should hold their own Criminal Justice Week. This could be done in many different ways. Some examples include: showing a documentary, holding a panel discussion, bringing in a speaker, or raising awareness for events that are going on in your community or other surrounding communities.
How could this relate to various disciplines?
Below is a list of suggestions on how this topic could be incorporated into different fields of study.
- Make art that explores an aspect of the criminal justice system.
- Encourage students to attend Art for Justice.
- Explore innovative prison design.
- Look at how design differs between countries.
- Watch Architecture of Incarceration Documentary.
- If a brain is not fully developed until 25, should juveniles be tried as adults in a court of law?
- Analyze the brains of people who have committed crimes, have mental illness, and have experienced trauma.
- Analyze algorithms for assumptions that show bias or inappropriate correlations.
- Deduce whether criminal justice algo- rithms/risk assessments are accurate, fair, and non-discriminatory.
- Is “Broken Windows” theory an excuse to justify discriminatory policing?
- What are the goals of the justice system? Are they being met in the most effective way?
- Make a short film depicting the problems with the system.
- Perform a cost-benefit analysis of criminal justice system, looking spe- cifically at how much money is being spent on rehabilitation programs and re-entry programs.
- How do private prisons spend their money? Is this effective in helping to reduce crime?
- Discuss efforts to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.
- Draft a curriculum for inmates.
- Write and read stories & articles about inmates.
- Discuss how storytelling affects the way we view the criminal justice system.
- How can listening to the stories of in- dividual inmates inform our thinking and decisions?
- Watch 13th documentary.
- Discuss the origins of the criminal justice system & how it has developed over time.
- Discuss collective-community-inter- generational trauma, slavery, and Jim Crow.
- Perform an indepth analysis into justice systems in other countries.
- How do they compare to our system? Which systems are considered the best and the worst?
- Write about how crime is reported.
- Does reporting increase problems of stigma, lock-them-up mentality, and pressure on law enforcement to solve crimes quickly? Why is there little attention paid to crime by police officers? How are criminals portrayed in the media?
Math & Statistics
- Compare recidivism rates, crime, poverty, and race statistics between different counties, states, and countries.
- Analyze criminal justice algorithms for bias.
- Hold debates about the death penalty, police abolition, prison reform, etc.
- Discuss the purpose of the justice system and moral dilemmas within the system.
- Analyze laws concerning the criminal justice system.
- Laws & Justice system reform (ACLU)
- Court system
- Systematic nature of problems
- Dedicate a lecture to correctional psychology.
- How do mental illness and traumatic experiences tie into the criminal justice system?
- Is the death penalty moral?
- How do different religions view crime and punishment?
- Discuss the Prison Industrial Complex and its impacts on society
- Watch the Stanford Prison Experiment. Is it human nature to behave in the ways presented in the film?
Race, Ethnicity, and the Criminal Justice System: http://www.asanet.org/ sites/default/files/savvy/images/press/ docs/pdf/ASARaceCrime.pdf
Mental Health & Criminal Justice Issues: http://www.mentalhealthamer- ica.net/issues/mental-health-and-crimi- nal-justice-issues
(See resource section for a complete list of suggested sources)
(2) Hess, Abigail. “California Is Paying Inmates $1 an Hour to Fight Wildfires.” CNBC, 12 Nov. 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/08/14/ california-is-paying-inmates-1-an-hour-to-fight-wildfires.html.
(3) Sawyer, Wendy. “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016 | Prison Policy Initiative, 2017, www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/.
(4) Goode, Erica. “Nearly a Third of Americans Are Arrested by 23, Study Says.” The New York The New York Times, 19 Dec. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/us/nearly-a-third-of-americans-are-arrested- by-23-study-says.html.