Will I Be Next?
Although February is Black History Month, we cannot celebrate fully yet. The United States has moved on from slavery and segregation, we still have a long way to go. We still have not seen full justice yet. It is evident that we are still experiencing racism in our justice system. Black Americans are still being wrongfully accused of crimes and are still being interrogated by police to plead guilty of a crime they did not commit. In the United States, Black youth are 5x more likely to be incarcerated than white youth in 2015. Do we not also get that presumption of innocence?
We need to change how we conduct interrogations and need to change how criminal prosecutions are conducted. For example, the case of the Exonerated Five shows how race in America plays a major role in incarceration than actual data and real evidence. Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, were just teenagers when they were coerced into giving a false confession in 1989 despite the DNA evidence proving them innocent. The presumption of aggression and dangerousness of Black boys in the justice system is extremely harmful, and we need concrete legislation to eliminate this bias. One glance, and immediately we are burdened with the presumption of guilt and aggression, but what have we ever done but be human?
In 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, the majority wrote that the death penalty was akin to, “self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law” while also proclaiming that, “if any basis can be discerned for the selection of these few to be sentenced to die, it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race.” A system made popular as a court-ordered alternative to lynchings cannot be reformed. It’s no mistake that, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, African-Americans make up 42% of people on death row, 32% who are later executed, yet only make up 13% of the United States’ population. We cannot continue on as a country who still bears the stains of the Jim Crow. We must end the death penalty.
We must not integrate the system but rebuild the system as a whole. The only way to truly get justice is to completely change the way our justice system works. We can’t combine hatred and justice.
There are no two sides, we need justice alone. We would have a 30% less poverty rate if we didn’t incarcerate innocent people. The Innocence Project estimates between 2.3 percent and 4 percent of all US prisoners are innocent. With the US prison population numbering 2.4 million, that means as many as 120,000 innocent people could currently be in prison.
Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against formerly incarcerated individuals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against Black Americans.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes that, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal”.
So what can we do to fix the criminal justice system, help innocent people, and protect young children who look like us from police brutality? We can call for Congress to pass bills that will reform the system altogether, such as eliminating incarceration as a penalty for drug addiction and mental illness, while also strengthening drug treatment programs. We can pass legislation to reverse the devastating consequences of the 1994 crime bill, and redirect federal funds away from prison and police expansion and toward criminal justice solutions that actually work — such as the BREATHE Act, which calls for several grassroot changes to the system, including cuts to funding for both the prison system and police.
It also holds politicians accountable for promises to the Black community, according to USA today. The Senate needs to pass H.R.1280 – George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, it “establishes a framework to prevent and remedy racial profiling by law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels. It also limits the unnecessary use of force and restricts the use of no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and carotid holds” according to the bill summary.
We need to also abolish cash bail. Across America, 3 out of every 5 people sitting in jail have not been convicted of a crime and can’t afford to pay for a bail. Cash bail criminalizes poverty and holds millions of innocent people pretrial every year. As with many criminal justice systems, this disproportionately affects low-income people, and people of color. According to the Brennan Center, Black and Latino men obtain higher bail amounts than white men for similar crimes by 35 and 19 percent, respectively. In Maryland, Black defendants were charged more than double the amount of bond premiums than all other races, put together, yet they only make up around 30% of Maryland’s population. States like Illinois, who ended the practice in February 2021 provide a model for other states across the nation, as well as a model at the federal level as well. It’s a system that treats rich and guilty defenders more favorably than if you’re poor and innocent.
We need to make sure that, in all 50 states, law enforcement must wear a body camera and have it on at all times. If passed and signed into law, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 would provide funds for local, state, and tribal governments to purchase body cameras in order to hold police officers accountable, increase transparency, as well as a means to decrease the use of excessive force by officers.
We need sweeping federal legislation to protect all Americans across the country. It must be passed at the federal level so we can help everyone in this country and put an end to the present criminal justice prejudice. This would be the start of dismantling the systemic racism and white supremacist systems that this country was founded off of. We are calling on the House and Senate to pass these reforms, because everyday we ask ourselves, “Will I be next?”