Two teenagers who spoke with The News Journal about how it feels for the system to be stacked against them summed up the state of mass incarceration in America, with one stating, “This is how the world operates,” and another stating, “If I was white, it would be different.” As most people, including lawyers, judges and police officers who feed the system, continue about life as if locking up such a high percentage of the population in the most racist manner in existence is normal, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine refuses to accept it as the norm.
Strine is leading a commission that includes Black history professors, public defenders, diversity officers, ACLU staffers and other stakeholders whose mission is to figure out “why cops keep arresting, prosecutors keep prosecuting, juries keep convicting, and judges keep sending so many Black people to prison for no reason what so ever.”
In a statement to Delaware’s largest newspaper publication, “Strine said the goal is to find common sense solutions to address the racial disproportions that clearly exist in the system. About 22 percent of the state’s residents are Black, but nearly 6 in 10 inmates in Delaware’s prisons are Black, according to 2014 statistics from the Department of Correction. The most urgent justice issue we have is the continuing inequality in society.”
The disproportionate numbers of Black people in America’s prisons means that either an enormous number of Black people are in jail for what amounts to no reason at all, or lots and lots of white people belong in jail but are getting away with crimes like murder, burglary, assault, shooting, theft and a variety of other crimes, or maybe the answer is somewhere in between. What is clear is that America is caught up in “this sticky web of injustice” that stems from racist police strategies that target Black neighborhoods, judges who sentence Black defendants more harshly, cyclical generational poverty, and an education system that is as segregated as it ever has been.
As Hope Commission Executive Director Charles Madden points out, the disparities “play out every day on the streets of Wilmington’s poorest neighborhoods,” illustrated by the fact that in some of those neighborhoods, two-thirds of the men are locked up or on parole or probation.
Strine points out,”It is unjust for a 5-year-old in this society to grow up and have a markedly different opportunity to enjoy the blessings of liberty than others. The way that manifests itself is that kids in Greenville and Hockessin get a fourth or fifth chance and in other communities don’t. That is just not something we can be proud of.”
What can be done about the fact that it is now obvious that America can not incarcerate its way toward justice? Experts say that the way to solve racial disparities must start with providing people with the economic and educational opportunities they have been denied for generations. There also must be remedies made to fix the labels and stigmas that those convicted by America’s unjust criminal justice system face such as lifetime labeling of felons. As Gregory B. Williams highlights, “Becoming a felon is more devastating today than what existed during Jim Crow.”
ACLU Delaware Executive Director Kathleen MacRae adds that society must consider where policing efforts are placed so that benign activities are not overly criminalized and also so that Black and poor communities are not unjustly targeted. Changing bail regulations is also important because those who cannot afford bail and sit in jail are more likely to take a plea deal, admitting guilt for crimes they did not commit. The fact that 60 percent of the 750,000 held in America’s prisons each year have not been convicted of a crime and are simply waiting for their trial highlights just how many people become entrapped in the dysfunctional injustice of the court system and come out permanently branded as a criminal when they could very well not be a criminal but a law abiding citizen who is too poor to buy themselves the justice they deserve.
Maybe one day soon, before another generation of Black children grow up criminalized and orphaned by the American injustice system, something will be done about the fact that so many people will never live out the altruistic American pipe dream of this country being the land of the free.
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