As a child, Christmas was a time for wishing for your best dreams, hopes and wishes to come true. As an adult, we learn that it takes more than wishing, hoping and dreaming to realize our dreams. It takes hard work and effort. So as we enter this holiday season of giving and dreaming, my wish is for everyone to work towards fixing our broken criminal justice system.
The criminal justice system is hardly just or fair for many African American and Hispanic men. In fact, it is just the opposite. As a former prosecutor, I have seen firsthand the systemic injustices perpetrated particularly on African American men, when it comes to arrests, charges and convictions. Last week, President Obama pardoned 13 persons and commuted the sentences of 8 others who were serving racially discriminatory sentences for crack cocaine. And earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder announced two initiatives that lessened the strict and archaic guidelines on sending blacks to jail for a disproportionate amount of time for crack cocaine. Attorney General Holder said recently in a speech, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
And on any given day in any given urban city, court dockets are filled with mostly blacks and Hispanics, many on mostly simple misdemeanor charges. Although black men make up roughly 6% of the United States population, they make up over 40.2% of the prison population. As author of the New Jim Crow and professor Michele Alexander states, there are more black men in the criminal justice system today than there were as slaves in 1850. Contrary to what some may believe, it’s not because blacks commit more violent crimes and thereby deserve a life in prison.
The road to an unjust criminal system starts long before an arrest. For example, it starts with stopping, frisking and harassing black and Hispanic men most often for no legitimate legal reason. The New York City law on stop and frisk was recently handed a near death blow in the courts. The law targeted and routinely stopped hundreds of thousands of young black and Hispanic men yearly with 9 out of 10 completely innocent of any crime. And Mayor Elect de Blassio is ready to put it out to pasture upon his taking office. And the injustice doesn’t end with a stop, arrest, a conviction or time served in prison. It continues after a prison release and time served with revocation of voting rights for felons.
And the flip side of the racial inequality is the fact that often preferential treatment is given to white defendants who commit violent acts or murder, particularly when committed against black victims. The recent cases involving Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin are not an anomaly, in my opinion. They are part of the problem of racial injustice in the system. Whites are given the benefit of the doubt, before an arrest or charge. On November 2, 2013, Renisha McBride, a 19 year old African American woman was shot and killed in Dearborn Heights, a suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan as she sought help and rang the doorbell and knocked on the door of Ted Wafer, a white man who claims he suspected she was a burglar. Wafer shot and killed her. Most burglars are not going around knocking on doors or ringing door bells. The prosecution took two weeks to bring charges against Wafer once the killer asserted his “Castle doctrine” defense of protecting his home. Wafer was not charged until November 15.
And in the Trayvon Martin killing which occurred on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman was not arrested and charged until April 11, 2012, amidst public outcry in the African American community. Trayvon Martin was profiled, pursued and ultimately killed due to his race. A jury perceived Trayvon, the teenager, to be the aggressor even though he was the one being followed and pursued by an adult. Despite what some well-meaning folks may think, this case was all about race and our broken system. Many African Americans believed that it speaks to the heart and core of what is wrong with the criminal justice system.
All I want for Christmas is to fix our broken criminal justice system. It will take time and hard work. But it will first take an acknowledgment in our society that our criminal justice system is broken and desperately needs to be fixed. There’s a saying that if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. Well, our criminal justice system is broken and badly needs to be fixed. And until America fixes our broken criminal justice system, we cannot be truly free as a country. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said over 50 years ago, “no one is free until we are all free”.