By Bryan Paz
Our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken and people of color suffer for it. Our wrecked drug and mandatory minimum sentencing laws disproportionately hurt Black and Latino Americans. There’s a lack of opportunities our society provides to people who have served their sentences. In fact, states make it harder to join back into society and enable recidivism. Thankfully, many organizations and leaders, such as the NAACP and influential politicians such as Cory Booker, Rand Paul and President Obama and even the Koch Brothers are starting to push for reforms that will make the broken system fairer and more just.
Immigration reform, expanding economic opportunities and educational equity for our community is obviously critical but they shouldn’t be the only issues our community fights for. We must hold all 2016 candidates, at every level of government from your representative to the presidential candidates, accountable on the issue of criminal justice reform. It’s a Latino issue too and we must unite behind reforms.
The criminal justice system is nuanced and cannot be fully discussed in one article but a simple breakdown of its main problems goes as follows.
- Drugs laws at the state and federal level are disproportionately enforced. Whites are more likely to use illegal drugs than blacks, yet more blacks are thrown into the prison system. The unfair enforcement of drug laws gets people of color in front of a judge and draconian minimum sentencing laws keep them imprisoned for gross amounts of time. Not only does it deprive judges of their autonomy to make a fair judgment call, many times people who commit small offenses get more time in prison than high-level dealers.
The result is an explosion in the prison population, with most of them being Latino and Black Americans, primarily men. In the early 1970s, the total prison population was approximately 200,000. Today, it’s over 1.5 million.
If you went to a hospital today and went to the maternity ward and looked at all the babies born today, you could essentially predict some of their fates. A Latino baby boy born today has a 1 in 6 chance of being imprisoned. For black boys, it’s even more unjust, skyrocketing at the rate of 1 in 3. For white boys, it’s 1 in 17.
Put plainly, whites do the crimes at higher rates but are incarcerated at lower rates while people of color commit the crimes at lower rates but are thrown in prison are incredibly high levels. There’s more human suffering. Children lose their fathers. Families are torn apart. Communities are deprived of their role models.
- When they’re thrown in prison for long periods of time, the psychological impact on them is barbaric. Violent offenders and non-violent offenders are subjected to similar amounts of suffering in prison by serving their sentences in the same “correctional” institutions. Today’s prisons are cramped, overpopulated and gives prisoners almost no opportunities for self-improvement. In fact, many times, prisons make people worse off and more violent.
- Americans with a felony record are second-class citizens. They are deprived of their constitutional right to vote, have a difficult time getting housing, cannot receive welfare benefits if they need it, cannot receive Pell Grants to attend college, and a variety of other things many people enjoy. Even worse, it’s very difficult to get a job with a felony record. This keeps many former felons poor. Many times they’re only choice to stay afloat is by dealing drugs again and consequentially, they’re thrown back in prison. It’s almost impossible to make a sustainable living as an ex-felon.
- Ironically, the whole reason why marijuana was banned in the first place was primarily because of racism against Mexicans and blacks. For most of country’s history, marijuana and other drugs were perfectly legal. A combination of yellow journalism, racist politicians and the public fear of “misbehaved colored people who were going to take your white women” prompted Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Before you knew it, marijuana was made a taboo and banned after years of legal consumption. Then in the 1970s, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act that codified specific substances and made them illegal. Marijuana was deemed as one of the most dangerous drugs — more dangerous than Adderall and Ritalin.
With the logic behind banning marijuana, then alcohol and caffeine should be illegal also. Marijuana is essentially not addictive, less harmful than alcohol, offers amazing medicinal benefits and much more. Once we legalize marijuana, let’s have a constructive conversation about how to combat against other, actually dangerous and harmful drugs.
- When it comes to the state of prisons, we must be more humane and focus on prisoner’s lives after prison. The purpose of prisons shouldn’t be to enable suffering and harden criminals. Like Gandhi said, an eye for an eye will make the world go blind. It should improve the individuals to make them better human beings, give them time to reflect and ensure they don’t commit the crime again. Not useless suffering. That benefits no one and makes us unsafe.
- We need to enable ex-felons to move past their crime and help them become full members of society by fixing our public policy that does the opposite.Depriving them from having a voice by disenfranchising them, removing opportunities to receive a degree and getting a job helps no one and holds our entire country back. It also enables recidivisms and makes our country more dangerous. First, let’s allow ex-felons to receive Pell Grants, give them the right to vote, and ban colleges and employers from asking non-violent ex-felons for their criminal record. Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Republican Senator and Presidential Candidate Rand Paul are sponsoring the REDEEM Act that would do some of these things such as banning the box on job applications for non-violent offenders and giving them the opportunity to receive food stamps. Congress should pass it. President Obama would likely sign it.
Luckily, there is rising support among leaders in both parties and growing momentum on Capitol Hill and some state governments. However, this incredibly important conversation is just starting. It is our moral responsibility as a community to unite together and push for reforms in our broken criminal justice system. We must let all 2016 candidates up and down the ticket that this is an issue Latinos care about and that we will not vote for you if you want to continue this barbaric and unjust system that perpetuates suffering and recidivism.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Latino Giant.