Criminal Injustice

Alya Bohr, Columnist

Humans are wildly nuanced, complicated, and complex creatures – sometimes all that messiness can be hard to comprehend. To ease our minds and satisfy our need to establish congruous identities, we label and categorize, stereotyping people by their most conspicuous traits. This happens all over society to the detriment of many groups of people ­– take, for instance, people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations. Our contemporary society is working towards sorting out these incongruities, but there remains a particular group whose limited and reductive identifications are rarely questioned. I’m talking about criminals. On the surface, theirs seems an easy group to identify: they’re people who have presumably committed terrible, illegal things, so we assume they are corrupt, that they deserve to be punished. “They brought this on themselves.” You get it. To think this way is to ignore the humanity in us all. To do this is to fall prey to the all too human inability to harbor conflicting beliefs about people.

Because it’s so easy to see criminals as unworthy of public sympathy, we often neglect to acknowledge the deep injustice inherent in our criminal justice system. This, of course, undeniably intersects with the structural and institutional racism and classism that are so deeply ingrained in our society – our criminal justice system isn’t designed to treat everyone fairly.

People of color constitute 60% of the incarcerated population, despite the fact that white people make up 64% of the general population. African Americans represent 13% of our overall population, but make up roughly 40% of people behind bars. These are more than just statistics. They are real people who have been pinned under implicit beliefs that target them as the most dangerous, the most violent, the most criminal group in the nation. Courts act on the assumption that men of color are more “predisposed to crime,” and thus they receive 60% longer sentences for the same crimes as their male counterparts Stop-Frisk-Laws disproportionately target black men with no justification other than what has come to be known as “walking while black.” It’s poor people of color who have primarily been affected by the “War on Drugs,” who are more likely to be arrested, who are more likely to be put on death row. It’s people of color who are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, who are most frequently stopped on the street, who experience the most police violence.

This isn’t justice. These statistics don’t accurately represent the reality of crime in the U.S., but rather the reality of racism. The reality of classism. The issue comes down to misunderstanding and misidentifying cycles of poverty, abuse and violence that our culture perpetuates by valuing certain bodies more than others.

When we tacitly accept these beliefs as truths, when we label those convicted of crime as categorically “evil” and then avert our eyes, we are doing a great disservice to the progress of our nation. We are complicit in a system that lacks humanity, that relies on stereotypes, that carries out injustice in the name of safety.

A short time ago, I went to the Washington Penitentiary for a class, an experience that rocked me to my core. I was so touched by the inmates I met. At one point, while we were shown around the Sustainable Practices Lab—an incredible opportunity for inmates to developed specialized skills and give back to the community—our tour guides revealed that they were, to use their words, “lifers.” I was shocked; these people who would never again experience the freedom of open society exuded such gentleness, kindness and warmth. They spoke of the narratives that are forced onto everyone as soon as they enter prison—the anger, the segregation, the violence—and how hard it is to break free from that system.

These criminals are humans defeated by a rigged society, hardened in the cold, alienating, and abusive U.S. prison system. Many of them have been subjected to life circumstances so difficult we can hardly imagine. Many of them are oppressed under the systems of structural injustice that permeate our entire society, that build up one group of people at the expense of others. We cannot ignore their humanity because they may have committed a crime. All of us exist in multiplicities, we have many facets that make up who we are. We can’t ever categorically know someone based on a few actions. These criminals that we so readily stereotype are complex humans, deserving of equality and justice and safety. We owe them their humanity.