The criminal justice system is in real trouble. This shouldn’t be a surprise if you pay even the slightest bit of attention. No matter which way you slice it (wrongful convictions, the death penalty, mass incarceration, the failed war on drugs, the disparate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color…) the system is broken and causing more harm than good.
In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Don’t let boring old numbers mislead you – that should be shocking. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Yesterday Anderson Cooper did a piece on the New Orleans Public Defender’s Office’s decision to refuse felony cases. 50 some-odd lawyers handling 22,000 cases? Holy shit. It’s inescapable that innocent people have been jailed, convicted, and sent to prison because of lack of access to competent legal counsel. The answer is not to shame the NOLA PD’s office. Their decision to turn these cases away rather than offer half-assed representation is, in my view, right (“A lawyer poorly represented can cause irreparable harm to the client.” says Chief NOLA PD Derwyn Bunton). Bunton likens the system to the factory-line scene from “I Love Lucy”: the system has become a conveyor belt that starts when you’re arrested…and just clicks along until you’re sent to prison. “It’s not about figuring out at any point your innocence. Should you even be on this conveyor belt, no matter what you did?”
The conveyor belt analogy is apt. The criminal justice system has become a soulless machine that gobbles people up and throws them away. It’s bad for the people accused, their families, and society as a whole. It costs too much and doesn’t make us safer.
So what’s the solution? Instead of the unthinking march to be ever tougher on crime, how about decriminalizing something for once? Does it make sense for nonviolent drug offenders to go to prison? Does it even make sense for drugs like marijuana to be illegal? Does it make sense for people with addiction issues to be sent to prison instead of receiving treatment? Whatever the solution is, it has to include adequate funding for law enforcement – which includes training and accountability measures like body cameras NOT just giving them more money to buy bigger and shinier toys to play with, mental health, indigent defense, community supervision, treatment, and reintegration into society.
This is a huge problem that we cannot afford to ignore any longer.