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50 Years of Failure

I am a book reader – I love books and lucky for me, there are LOTS of incredible books to read including those that cover the current state of the criminal justice system. This month I am beginning a year-long series where each month I will write about a book I will read during the course of the year regarding the brokenness of the US justice system. I am calling it, “50 Years of Failure” because since 1973, through harsh sentences, an inept “War on Drugs”, systematic racism and classism, and the politicization of fear, our prison population has exploded and the results for mostly Black and Brown families and communities have been absolutely devastating. (We are also coordinating a Lenten Series called 50 Years of Failure which you can sign up for!)

I hope these will be books you might read either individually or in small groups. Two books I won’t read (again), but which I strongly urge you to check out are Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I want to highlight books that might not get as wide an audience.

This month I am focusing on a book written by Emily Bazelon called, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration. Bazelon highlights the longtime and deeply entrenched problem of too much power being entrusted to prosecutors. Prosecutors have been amassing this power over the last forty years and this is largely because so many politicians used to be prosecutors. With the increasing number of mandatory minimum sentences prosecutors can threaten and bully poor defendants who are appointed over-worked and badly underpaid public defenders by charging them with a number of crimes that carry decades of mandatory prison time in order to get them to plead to a slightly lesser number of crimes for a slightly lesser amount of time. Either way, the system works for prosecutors, especially those driven by political ambition, more than it does for defendants.

As a result, we have A LOT of people in prison for rather small offenses and an alarming number are simply innocent. But finding the truth is no longer the aim of the criminal justice system. Public safety is not really the aim either. And we can forget entirely about a justice system that brings healing for victims or accountability for those who offend. When the system we have now gives such immense power (and money) to prosecutors and police, then we have the perfect recipe for a group of people (District Attorneys) making their careers off of the lives of poor people and people of color.

Bazelon illustrates these realities mostly through the stories of two people:

A young woman named Noura from Memphis who was charged with murdering her mother by a hard-driving prosecutor (Amy Weirich) who refused to see the lack of any real evidence implicating Noura and who ended up neglecting to turn over important evidence during the trial. This “mistake” eventually led to Noura’s release though it only came after nearly a decade in prison for Noura for a horrific crime she never committed. And Noura’s prosecutor never admitted her horrible mistakes and was never held accountable. The system protects prosecutors much more ably than innocent people.

The second story was a young man named Kevin (not his real name) who lives in Brooklyn and had experienced past offenses with law enforcement. One afternoon when the police burst into his friend’s apartment Kevin made the mistake of picking up a gun which wasn’t his and was then charged with a violent felony. Instead of spending a mandatory lengthy time in prison, Kevin qualified for a program made available to him by a progressive District Attorney. This program mandated that Kevin meet with someone monthly to help hold him accountable and stick to a plan that included employment, a curfew, and the need to steer away from trouble. At the end of the year, if Kevin held to his commitments, then his record would be clean. Kevin’s year wasn’t entirely smooth, but his case manager wasn’t out to “catch” him and instead, earned his trust through advocating for him more than once, and that made the difference. Kevin made it.

One of the key differences between these two outcomes is the differences in the goals of the District Attorneys. In Noura’s case, the DA was focused solely on convictions and prison time, so much so that she completely lost sight of holding the person responsible for the crime accountable as well as her ethical responsibility. On the other hand, in Kevin’s case the DA was much more interested in public safety and making sure those who did not need to be ensnared by long sentences would not be.

Bazelon highlights an increasing number of DAs who are more focused, as in Kevin’s case, with authentic public safety, which is actually undermined when excessive punishments are handed out and healing for victims and restoration for offenders is left entirely out of the process. A number of new DAs are turning more and more to restorative justice (which works to heal victims and restores those who offend through relational accountability) rather than retributive justice. One of those new DAs is in Arlington, VA where I live. And even though Arlington is fairly progressive, the resistance to our new District Attorney has been intense.

And this is the reason for this series. We must examine the injustices entrenched in the criminal justice system and dream of new ways for our justice system to be truly just; to be a means of healing for the land. Right now, it is not.

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