Op-ed: The case for prison reform

Sunday, February 23, 2020 - 10:23am

The United States is a world leader — in its incarceration rates. The U.S. represents 4 percent of the world population but holds 22 percent of the world's prisoners, a clear indicator of how problematic the U.S.’s mass incarceration crisis is. This statistic raises all kinds of questions. Are Americans inherently more aggressive than other nationalities? If not, why has the U.S. had one of the world’s highest incarceration rates for decades?

In general, the American system is set up to create career criminals. The economic disparity in the U.S. is far greater than in most Western countries. David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, explains in his book “No Equal Justice” how the U.S. in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color. The wealthy can access a vigorous system filled with constitutional protections for defendants; however, this system is largely reserved for the wealthy alone. The experiences of poor and minority defendants within the criminal justice system often differ substantially from the idealized model due to a number of factors, each of which contributes to the overrepresentation of such groups in the system. 

Additionally, when and if someone is released from prison, it is extremely hard for them to get a job. This can result in the individual committing more crimes and getting a harsher sentence the second time around. This eventually leads to a lot less social and economic mobility, so the poor continue to stay poor. Broadly speaking, the rich are not affected by the prison system to the same extent that minorities and the poor are, and they even have the opportunity to invest in prisons and make a profit. 

This reality goes hand-in-hand with the protest school of thought that argues human rights law is hijacked by the elite and there will always be further injustice. Unfortunately, it is the rich and powerful who dictate the direction of laws, including those for prison reform. This is a problem because if something doesn’t affect a specific group much, it does not give it much thought. 

While the prison system is unjust, it also entraps a disproportionately high rate of Black men. African Americans make up 33 percent of the correctional population, yet 12 percent of the general population. There is clearly a system of legal discrimination and segregation in this country that has occurred due to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. White people are not better behaviorally than Black people. For example, African Americans and white people use drugs at similar rates. In the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 17 million whites and four million African Americans reported having used an illicit drug within the last month. However, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites. One of every three African American men could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to one of every seventeen white men. According to The Sentencing Project, white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by African Americans, while failing to realize “that their communities are disproportionately victims of crime and discount the prevalence of bias in the criminal justice system.”

This relates back to the protest school of thought because it argues that once someone has a certain human right, they enjoy it for themselves, but no longer care whether or not others have that same right. White individuals should fight for African American human rights until the Black community can enjoy the same rights as the white community. There are, as The Sentencing Project notes, “disproportionate levels of police contact with African Americans” compared to other races. Police resources are purposely put toward low-income areas with high minority numbers where they assume crime will be committed. This increases police brutality among the African American population and creates a culture that leads African Americans to be seen as criminals. 

For this country to truly make meaningful reforms to this atrocious system, there has to be an acknowledgment of the racial and ethnic disparities that are occurring in the prison system and the public must focus its attention on how to reduce these disparities. It is the U.S.’s responsibility to develop training to alleviate the influence of implicit racial bias at every level of the criminal justice system: among police officers, public defenders, prosecutors, judges, jury members and parole boards.

Irisa Lico is a sophomore International Studies major in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at ilico@umich.edu.