photo by Shary Ali
“With liberty and justice for all.”
“Justice.” This term seems to be repeated everywhere in American society — the pledge, textbooks and history classes; it seems as though America is always striving to uphold “justice.”
However, justice is a term that people have begun to lose faith in.
With current social movements flooding all news outlets, there has been increasing acknowledgement of the various caveats of the U.S. criminal justice system. Naturally, in response, many activists have been demanding reform in several aspects of the U.S. justice system:
According to TED Ideas, nearly 70% of the prisoners in local jails are detained because they cannot afford to pay bail, the amount of payment made by defendants to ensure their release from custody until their trial. Although the bail system is now a heavily debated topic, the initial purpose of bail wasn’t designed to discriminate against the lower class.
“Bail is designed to provide some security that the defendant will show up in court for their next court date. They pay that money to the court, and if they show up in court for their court date then they get that money back, but if they don’t show up in court, then they forfeit that money,” social studies teacher Keenan Goldsby said. “Clearly a person who has more money is going to be in a better situation to pay bail or even pay the 10% that you have to pay. For many defendants, they can end up sitting in jail for longer than they would likely get if they’re found guilty.”
Despite its good intentions, TED Ideas notes that the bail system has essentially led to a two-tiered justice system by disproportionately affecting those who come from low-income backgrounds.
While waiting behind bars for court hearings, those who can’t afford bail may suffer from dangerous living conditions in prison, inadequate health care and the risk of losing their jobs. In addition, the inability to pay bail has also been known to affect case outcomes; after waiting for so long, low-income people get convicted at a higher rate than those who haven’t been assigned bail and must take plea bargains to get out of jail, regardless of whether they actually committed the crime.
“To us, a fine is a punishment. But to the wealthy, a fine is just how much it costs to do something illegal,” senior Milas Metzinger said. “Any justice system based off of money is one that lets the wealthy get away with crimes.”
Due to the controversy surrounding the bail system, many areas, such as Washington D.C., California and New Jersey, have foregone the use of cash bail, according to Vox.
Discrimination against people of color
In the U.S., the criminal justice system incarcerates people of color at a much higher rate than white Americans. As reported by The Sentencing Project, African Americans are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and Hispanics are 3.1 times more likely.
Many also argue that this institutionalized discrimination ties back to socio-economic status. Comparative to the white population in the U.S., many people of color fall within the lower class and are thus disproportionately affected by the system.
“I think it all comes back to money. The wealthy can afford to hire a private attorney, pay bail, etc.,” criminal justice teacher Patrick Loftus said. “People who do not have the financial resources rely on the public defenders who, in many cases, are overworked and underpaid.”
A common belief is that people of color make up a large percentage of U.S. prisons due to common drug usage in low-income neighborhoods. However, it is important to note that drug use rates do not vary significantly by race. Despite this fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that a black person is 3.73 times more likely to get arrested than a white person for the possession of marijuana.
In addition to higher incarceration rates, there are also racial disparities in sentencing within the U.S. criminal justice system. According to the ACLU, Blacks and Latinos receive longer sentences than whites with similar offenses and criminal histories, and Black males specifically have sentences nearly 20% longer than white men who were convicted of similar crimes.
High incarceration rates and longer sentencing for people of color is only the tip of the iceberg when observing racial disparity in the system.
“Overly-white juries are a huge problem within the justice system, as is over policing of communities of color, as well as gentrification and systemic de-wealthing of people of color, meaning that the resources that would actually help stop crime in those communities instead goes to rich white people,” Metzinger said. “Black neighborhoods are overpoliced and white perpetrators are undercharged, causing very racially unequal incarceration [rates].”
Mandatory minimum sentencing
For certain crimes, such as drug possession, laws require judges to declare a minimum prison sentence. These mandatory minimum sentences are set by Congress for federal crimes and by states for state crimes and cannot be lowered by the judges in any circumstance. With mandatory minimums, the character of the defendant and any life circumstances surrounding the case are disregarded, leading to much longer sentences with no flexibility or gray area.
Due to these mandatory minimum laws, the U.S. currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world and holds over 25% of the world’s prison population. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, drug offenders currently account for 46.4% of prison inmates in the U.S.
“A mentioned solution to the [abundance of drug offenders] is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders,” Goldsby said. “The criticism of [mandatory minimum sentences] is that it does not allow judges to exercise some discretion, show some mercy or treat each individual on a case-by-case basis.”
Many condemn mandatory minimums because it has led to prison overcrowding and created a prison system where the majority of inmates are nonviolent offenders. With over 200 mandatory minimum sentences attached to criminal charges in Virginia, the state’s lawmakers are currently looking to eliminate mandatory minimums, but are still debating which ones to get rid of.
Holding police accountable
With the recent social movements and frequent videos of police brutality, people have been left distrustful and wary of the police. In fact, according to a survey by Gallup, public confidence in the police was at a record low in 2020.
According to Insider, police training varies by department and state, with practically no uniform code of police education. With police shootings taking over the headlines, many criticize the police system for lack of adequate training on behalf of their officers. For example, CNN noted that North Carolina required 1,528 hours to become a licensed barber, while the state’s minimum police training requirement was 620 hours. In fact, many trade jobs require more hours of training for a license than police need in order to get a badge.
In Virginia, the Code of Virginia sets forth that all police officers must receive a minimum of 480 hours of department approved training at a criminal justice training academy; in addition to that, Virginia police officers must complete a minimum of 100 hours of approved field training. In total, that amounts to about 580 hours of training, which is still rather low compared to many other trade jobs.
The historical roots of the police force is often referenced as the cause of many of their flaws. Created in Boston in 1838, the police force has been around since even before the abolishment of slavery. With a controversial history and a current heavily criticized U.S. police system, it is often argued that police officers should be regulated further.
“If you look into the history of this country, you’ll find that the first police were not there at the beginning of this nation, but rather they were deputized from runaway slave patrols,” Metzinger said. “Like with prisons, in the meantime police should be regulated through the elimination of qualified immunity, the demilitarization of the police and defunding of police departments, as well as actually firing officers when they take a life.”
However, while there are flaws within the U.S. police system, many are still hopeful that police can continue to act as mediators in neighborhoods and different communities.
“I would like to see more cooperation between the community and the police,” Loftus said. “I understand that some people may dislike the police, not trust the police or be fearful of the police, but cooperation is very important.”
Using social media as a platform to expose police brutality has led to increased awareness in Congress. Last year, the Justice in Policing Act was passed by the House which banned police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limited legal protection granted to officers and enforced other restrictions as well. Although the act has yet to be voted on by the Senate, the bill’s existence is proof of progress.
Slowly, the U.S. criminal justice system is changing. Although it may not be at the fast pace that a number of people want, many states are beginning to reform aspects of their criminal justice system. In Virginia, the death penalty was recently abolished, sentencing reforms have been adopted and no-knock warrants have been banned.
This is only the beginning.