Locked Up – Who, For What and Why? Three Questions We Fail to Ask

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On June 21st, I stood below the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. alongside hundreds of participants in the first annual Free Her Rally. Many of us had shared experiences of wrongdoing at the hands of the criminal justice system and it was no coincidence that many of us were black women. The reason for the event can be summed up in one chilling statistic; in the past 30 years, the incarceration rate of women has increased by 800% with women of color being disproportionately represented. This is a prime example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system and it is why we stood together and rallied. We not only wanted to share our stories of how this unthinkable statistic has affected us – we were there to take action.


A large part of why I was there that day stemmed directly from a major event in my childhood. Child Protective Services took my four siblings and I from our Mother when I was five years old. I loved my mother dearly, and like most children at that age, I was attached to her at the hip. To put it lightly, being taken from her devastated me. It was explained to me that she was labeled a drug addict and deemed unfit to take care of us.I could not reconcile that statement with what I had experienced; she was a loving, single mother who did an excellent job of providing for us. She was heavily involved in our school life, was always the first to volunteer for the PTA and even stepped in as lunch lady at times. This abrupt removal from my home left me asking questions and seeking answers. I was rightfully angry from my experience with CPS, but more importantly, I now spend my days advocating for policies that do not unjustly inflict trauma and ruin the lives of others. I know there is another way to shape our criminal justice system. It can be principled, compassionate and backed by evidence of success.


My politics, and by extension my passions, are shaped by statistics and common sense. For example, nearly twenty-four million people in the United States abuse and are addicted to illegal narcotics. Medical professionals tell us they are suffering from a disease. How can we help the people struggling with this detrimental and debilitating illness? Unfortunately, many people (specifically law enforcement officials) will tell you they should be thrown in jail.


Handcuffs do not cure addictions, so why would you send someone to jail for having an illness? If our tax dollars were used to wean people off of drugs rather than the failed approach of throwing them in a cage, we can significantly reduce the supply and demand of drugs in our country. This has been the successful policy of Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized since 2001. As a result, “the proportion of drug offenders in the Portuguese prison system fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008” and the country has drastically decreased its rates of addiction and disease transmission. There are many success stories from around the globe of alternative policies that have proven to reduce the use of narcotics. We can do the same for our country.


Another defect of our broken criminal justice system: our prisons are filled with people of color. When you look at the incarceration rates for drug possession, blacks make up “12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.


Why are blacks disproportionately represented in the rate of drug arrests? Simple: racial profiling. While the Jim Crow Era came to an end after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prejudice and racism in our society did not go away. Stereotypes of blacks as dangerous criminals and good for nothing have seeped into the mindsets of our law enforcement and judiciary officials. This has allowed for them to target people of color and give them harsher punishments. Blacks are not only arrested at higher rates, they are locked up for longer periods of time.


Understanding what racial profiling is and how prevalent it has become is key to changing our failing criminal justice system. By criminalizing drugs and targeting people of color as suspect, there are more black people in chains today than at any point of the African Slave Trade. Our country must come to terms with how racism is destroying entire communities and gutting our economic potential as we unwittingly continue the cycle of poverty.


While these two issues are harmful enough, their negative impact has been compounded and inflated by the Prison Industrial Complex and mass incarceration. The prison industry lobbies for harsher penalties for drug use and other non-violent crimes, resulting in strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and possession. This is the leading cause of our prison population quadrupling since 1980. Currently, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 2.4 million of our citizens behind bars, the majority of which are for drug offenses, costing us between $21,000 – $33,000 per inmate. This is inhuman and simply put, not sustainable. We must implement smarter, alternative policies for the sake of our families and our communities.


As I stood below the Washington Monument and listened to the passionate demand to end the drug war, racist policies and mass incarceration, I knew I was not alone in my anger and outrage. I made a promise to myself to convert my passion into action: to advocate for the Smarter Sentencing Act, Ban the Box initiatives, anti-racial profiling proposals, harm reduction policies, regulation of illicit drugs by health clinics and funding for rehabilitation centers. Will you do the same? As speaker Ronnel Guy, Executive Director of the Northside Coalition for Fair Housing said – “It’s movement building time!”

 Photo Credit: Julia Johnson