Paul R. Lehman, Changing the criminal justice system and mass incarceration starts at the local level

July 10, 2018 at 4:13 am | Posted in African American, criminal justice, justice, justice system, law, lower class, Michelle Alexander, minority, non-violent crimes, Oklahoma, poverty, race, Race in America, social conditioning, social justice system, The Oklahoman | Leave a comment
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Often times, when something happens involving the criminal justice system that has a negative effect on a segment of society, that part of society that is not seemingly directly impacted will pay little or no attention to the problem Usually, they remain uninvolved and uninformed relative to the criminal justice until it affects them directly. What they do not realize is that they have always been directly affected by the system whether they know it or not. One way they, the public, is affected is through the high rate of incarceration and prison overcrowding that the citizens are financially responsible for paying. However, since they do not receive the bill directly, they give little attention to it. The groups that are forced to pay the bills are the poor and people of color. So, for many years mass incarceration has been about controlling people of color and the poor right in plain sight while nothing was done to correct the injustices that were committed against them.

Studies have been conducted relative to mass incarceration ascertaining that the phenomena are not simply an act of maintaining law and order, but a system of economic profit-making. A number of scholars have referred to the criminal justice system as the prison industrial complex because of the vastness of the system and the many people involved at many different levels. Although this system is a nationwide organization, what keeps it going happens at the local levels of society. So, if an effort is made to replace the unjust system, the initial action must take place at the local level. The first order of business is to re-educate the public and present a transparent picture of what happens to a citizen that is incarcerated at the local level and how he or she becomes part of the bodies working for the system.

Many citizens are led to believe that because a person is arrested, charged, and sent to prison that they deserve to be there because they broke the law. Generally speaking, that would be an accurate assessment. However, what created the present situation of mass incarceration had nothing to do with citizens breaking the law, but with the laws being changed to expand the number of people being incarcerated. When President Reagan instituted his war on drugs and crime, he caused a modification of the charges and length of sentencing. The system has since added the fees, fines, and numerous charges to the sentence of the incarcerated person, making freedom almost impossibility if one happens to be poor or a person of color. So, the more people introduced into the system, the more efficiently it runs. For an in-depth look at the subject of mass incarceration please read Michelle Alexander’s book THE NEW JIM CROW.

The state of Oklahoma is one of the national leaders regarding mass incarceration in general, but number one as far as incarcerating women is concerned. This problem was brought to the attention of the Oklahoma citizens in the form of two state questions that addressed the rate of incarceration of people with drug problems and non-violent crimes. The state actually passed the two questions 780 and 781 that sought to reclassify drug possession and some other lower-level crimes as misdemeanors. The objective of the questions was to use the money saved from not incarcerating people of these types of crimes and use that money for alternative programs. These types of programs are necessary for addressing the problems and redirecting the money.

Kris Steele, a former Speaker of the House, is the chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and leader in attempting to stop the mass march to prison of many citizens. Based on his studies and experiences relative to criminology he understands that prison is not the answer to problems involving drug use and low-level offenses. He expressed some of his concerns in an article, “Justice reform must have buy-in,” (7/9/2018) that underscored the injustice of the sentencing today. He also noted the importance of the people involved in the working of the criminal justice system understanding the problems and helping to overcome many of these problems, not trying to maintain the status quo. Steele noted the need for elected officials and others to accept the programs. He stated that “Unfortunately, some elected officials still haven’t accepted this approach. In the six months after the state questions were enacted, 882 people were sent to prison with drug possession as their most serious offense—directly rebutting the will of voters.”

One of the problems in this matter is the lack of concern of many of the citizens; they either do not care or do not know the seriousness of mass incarceration. Steele noted that citizens pay the price and it is significant: “If each of these 882 people sentenced to prison for drug possession spent one year in prison, it would cost the taxpayer $15 million, and if they were imprisoned for the statewide average for drug possession—25 months—it would cost $32 million.

We know that mass incarceration is a feature of the criminal justice that keeps the system going; we also know that the system is unjust and unfair to people of color and the poor. We realize that we can start to resolve the problem if we work together. Steele noted that “Once this cultural change is embraced by those responsible for implementing reform, Oklahoma can safely reduce its incarceration rate, boost public safety and strengthen families.”  Oklahomans must keep the pressure for corrective action open and out front for change to occur.

Along with addressing the problem of mass incarceration is the need for prison reform from a national perspective. Michael Gerson in an article “An idea that should succeed in Washington,” (7/9/2018) citing the need for prison and sentencing reform referenced two scholars, Steven Teles and David Dagan who identified reform as “an example of ‘trans-partisanship,” and “a agreement on policy goals driven by divergent, deeply held ideological beliefs.” Everything depends on how people view crimes and criminals. They stated that “Liberals look at mass incarceration as see structural racism. Libertarians see the denial of civil liberties, Fiscal conservatives see wasted resources. Religious activists see inhumane conditions and damaged lives.”

Gerson summed up the solution for mass incarceration, prison, and sentencing reform by making one simple statement—“ All these convictions converge at one point: We should treat offenders as humans, with different stories and different needs, instead of casting them all into the same pit of despair.” Easy to say, harder to accomplish.

Paul R. Lehman,Being poor signals a lack of power with the police for ethnic minorities.

September 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Posted in American Bigotry, blacks, Disrespect, equality, Ethnicity in America, fairness, justice, Media and Race, Prejudice, Race in America, socioeconomics, whites | 1 Comment
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Is there any doubt about why most ethnic American communities, especially the African American, American Indian, and the Hispanic, have problems accepting the police as being “servants of the people” when the majority of the experiences involving the police in these communities are negative? Unless the readers are ethnic American, chances are their experiences with the police are quite different from those who are. One only has to watch the local and national news to learn about how many ethnic Americans are treated by the police departments in given situations. They, generally, get no respect. Two recent examples of disrespect to African American families come to mind– Trayvon Martin, and Robin Leander Howard.

Most people know the story of Trayvon Martin being shot and killed within sight of his family members’ residence.  His family was not notified for several days that their loved one had died from a gun shot. When his family inquired of Trayvon’s location, they were not given any answers.  When Trayvon’s father went to the Police and requested a missing person’s complaint, he was not told about his son’s death. The police listed Trayvon as “John Doe,” since, according to them, he did not have any identification on him. The fact of the matter is that the family of Trayvon was not given any detail information until they obtained the services of an attorney. Even then, the information requested by the family attorney was not readily forthcoming.

The situation was somewhat different with respect to the victim in the case of Robin Leander Howard. According to the newspaper report (The Oklahoma, 8/15/12), “Officers said Howard led them on a chase that ended in the 1400 block of Monticello Court, about 150 yards from the small home he shared with his mother. What happened after police caught up with Howard is a mystery.”Reports indicate that medical assistance was first called to the location, but later refused. The article did not indicate who refused the medical attention. However, we are told that the police later took Howard to a hospital where he later died. His family was able to retrieve the mother’s vehicle from the impound lot, but when inquiry concerning Howard’s location was made, the family received no helpful information. Finally, after four days, the family was notified by the police that Howard was dead and that he had died in the hospital.

Still unable to obtain detailed information concerning Howard’s death from the police department, the family hired an attorney to assist them. A few days later, the city’s police chief made a public apology to the family for not notifying them of their loved one’s death in a timely manner. However, the family still did not receive any information relative to why and how Howard died. The family decided to seek the assistance of national organizations to help in this matter so maybe they can receive the information they want.

The object of this topic is not to cast aspersions towards the police and/or the police departments in general, but to focus on how the families of ethnic minorities, especially African Americans are treated by many law enforcement agencies. To say that they are treated with disrespect would be an understatement; they simply are not valued. Why?  Part of the answer lies in the attitude of the establishment regarding minority ethnic groups that is expressed in the number of incarcerations.  Two researchers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (The Spirit Level), state that “Racial and ethnic disparities in rate of imprisonment are one way of showing the inequalities in risk of being imprisoned. In America, the racial gap can be measured as the ration between imprisonment rates for whites and blacks.” Wilkinson and Pickett further noted that “Twenty-five per cent of white youths in America have committed one violent offense by age 17, compared to 36 per cent of African Americans, ethnic rates of property are the same, and African American youth commit fewer drug crimes.” However, we are told that “…African-American youth are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested, to be detained, to be charged, to be charged as if an adult and to be imprisoned.”

In addition, these researchers indicated that “The same pattern is true for African- American and Hispanic adults, who are treated more harshly than whites at every stage of judicial proceedings.” Also, we learn that “Facing the same charges, white defendants are far more likely to have the charges against them reduced, or to be offered ‘diversion’—a deferment or suspension of prosecution if the offender agrees to certain conditions, such as completing a drug rehabilitation programme.”

While the information pertaining to the treatment of African Americans and other minorities is important, it does not give a reason for it happening, the cause. The reasons are spelled out, however, in the following statement by Wilkinson and Pickett:

“People nearer the bottom of society almost always face downward discrimination and prejudice. There are of course important differences between what is seen as class prejudice in society without ethnic divisions, and as racial prejudice where there are. Although the cultural marks of class are derived inherently from status differentiation, they are less indelible than differences in skin colour. But when differences in ethnicity, religion or language come to be seen as markers of low social status and attract various downward prejudices, social division and discrimination may increase.”

If we translate the language of the researchers, we find that the reasons for the lack of respect shown the African Americans relative to the various police departments is due to their perception of African Americans having little or nor economic, political, or social power–poor people equal no power. The attitudes of both the police and the ethnic communities are generally based on the experiences encountered by each segment. Approximately 90 per cent of the police encounters in the minority communities are negative. The communities, then, assume that the only value police associates with them are negative. So, the assessments go both ways.

If the practice is to stop, work has to be done by the local police departments in improving their images and relationship with the ethnic communities and the communities must help to create better positive relations with the law enforcement agencies. The best way to insure continued negative results and poor relations between both sides is for each side to ignore the problems.

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