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How Did Our Criminal Law System Become So Broken?

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The state of our criminal law system is shocking. More than one in every one hundred adults in the U.S. is in jail or prison. We now have over 2.3 million people locked up on any given day, approximately the same number as China and Russia combined. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States now has more than 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

In this land of liberty, our tax dollars pay to incarcerate one in every fifty-three of our young people in their twenties, at enormous cost to our citizens and loss to society. When the costs are added up, every year an inmate spends in jail or prison costs us about the equivalent of one teacher's salary. That means a lot of teachers' salaries are being spent not on teaching kids but on locking up those kids' dads, moms, sisters, and brothers.

This incarceration binge is destroying the fabric of our communities, some more than others. One in every fifteen African American men lives in a prison or jail cell. If you are an African American male between the ages of twenty and thirty-four, the ratio is one in nine.

One is compelled to ask, how is it that a nation like the United States, known for its commitment to liberty and justice for all, became embedded in an incarceration binge of such magnitude? To find the answer, we need only step back in time to when the pollsters and politicians became bedfellows.

From 1950 to 1960, the number of televisions in U.S. homes grew from nineteen million to forty-seven million. As television took over as our main entertainment and source of information, the media, politicians, and pollsters became more savvy about how to use feelings, images, and thirty-second sound bites to shape how Americans vote. They discovered that our fear of crime is easily manipulated and can be used to mobilize voters, even if it means the collateral damage must be kept under wraps and it does little to change the crime rate.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were the turning point. In 1970, there were only 196,429 men and women in state and federal prisons. Just two years before, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had sparked race riots across the country.

The 1968 presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey was the first to market the presidential candidates as if they were consumer products. What better ribbon to tie that package together than our fear of crime? It was a time of turbulence for the nation, and we were offered punishment and revenge as the answer.

Politicians began to see thirty-second sound bites about crime as essential campaign tools. Within a decade, the incarceration rate nationwide began to surge upward at an unprecedented rate. They crafted snappy messages, like "the war on drugs," "abolish parole," "truth in sentencing," "three strikes, you're out," "mandatory minimums," "zero tolerance," and "try juveniles as adults." These clever sound bites were translated into more punitive laws that have deeply impacted the system.

For nearly forty years, to get themselves elected, U.S. politicians have used the get-tough punitive approach to crime to convert complex problems into simple slogans that play on our fear of crime. They didn't tell us that their get tough on crime policies had little effect on the rate of violent crime, even though by the 1990s the evidence was clear. They were primarily locking up nonviolent offenders.

Between 1980 and 1993, nonviolent offenders accounted for eighty-four percent of the growth in state and federal prison populations. Nonetheless, once elected, the politicians continued to pass laws and adopted policies that take the punitive form of justice to greater and greater extremes. Getting tough on crime has become a crusade, used even when crime rates are falling.

It is now standard political practice to label candidates who object to this wasteful path and propose better answers as being soft on crime, which, in an environment of vengeance at any cost, makes them a target. While tough on crime is an easy sell, the assertion that this excessively punitive approach is good public policy is refuted by a mound of evidence. A stream of reports, studies, books, and documentaries warned of an impending crisis, long before it arrived.

The politicians who do not consciously realize they are part of a larger, destructive pattern are those who do not look at the big picture.

Based on the author's book, Beyond Vengeance, Beyond Duality: A Call for a Compassionate Revolution.

Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 8-24-10.

 

www.sylviaclute.com

Attorney, author, blogger. After several years as a trial attorney, Sylvia Clute became disillusioned with the legal system and began her search for a better way. This led to writing two books, Beyond Vengeance, Beyond Duality: A Call for a (more...)
 
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If the policies of the government make large perce... by David Roche on Friday, Sep 17, 2010 at 10:03:32 PM
but it is more than that. I personally feel that ... by Michael Morris on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 8:19:27 AM
Religion plays an interesting role in forming and ... by Sylvia Clute on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:16:03 PM
if that foundation is money as it is now, we have ... by Michael Morris on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 4:03:11 PM
I believe treating people with regard to their nee... by David Roche on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:56:41 PM
about organized religion as it is as bad a corpora... by Michael Morris on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 4:07:10 PM
and don't worry, at the rate things are going now,... by Laura Roberts on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 5:52:14 PM
Read click here... by Jill Herendeen on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 9:08:05 PM
Our justice system has been around for a long time... by Sylvia Clute on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:10:33 PM
On a personal note I beg you to come back. We need... by Miriam Callaghan on Sunday, Sep 19, 2010 at 12:18:52 PM
An excellent article. I must take exception thoug... by Bruce Morgan on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 10:01:58 AM
I agree that our image is tarnished. I studied in ... by Sylvia Clute on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:20:38 PM
It is now standard political practice to label can... by ladybroadoak on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 12:29:32 PM
Candidates with real solutions can win if enough p... by Sylvia Clute on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:27:33 PM
Here is an interesting link for those who think th... by ladybroadoak on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 3:05:20 PM
I MEANT the Republican National Convention. See h... by ladybroadoak on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 12:41:29 PM
all paid by Wall Street. We have the best Governm... by Michael Morris on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:09:42 PM
It appears to me that society inculcates a prison ... by David Roche on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:35:04 PM
George Wallace started it with his Us vs. Them cam... by phidipidese on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 1:58:56 PM
A big part of the climbing US jail/prison populati... by Philip Dennany on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 2:31:22 PM
A lot of people are in prison for using narcotics ... by David Roche on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 3:00:05 PM
Reagans own attorney general Edwin meese actually ... by liberalsrock on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 3:00:02 PM
And I voted for Clinton. Voting has not been one o... by David Roche on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 3:10:42 PM
Good article! You must remember also that as nowhe... by John S. Hatch on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 3:44:13 PM
rhetoric is just a distraction. Read http://www.d... by Jill Herendeen on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 6:43:32 PM
to the person who was appointed by the governor to... by Michael Morris on Sunday, Sep 19, 2010 at 5:13:09 PM
What solutions you have regarding the growing pris... by Laura Roberts on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 6:03:44 PM
I do write about solutions that are available, bot... by Sylvia Clute on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 10:39:29 PM
Nothing will change. Even when "they" come for you... by phidipidese on Saturday, Sep 18, 2010 at 11:41:01 PM
No, actually, I blame the abysmal state of educati... by Carol Cleveland on Sunday, Sep 19, 2010 at 4:10:21 PM