Sunday, August 17, 2014

Disparities in Justice in America - A Renewed Discussion

One nation, two justice systems? (Image courtesy - twitter@DerrickJaxn)
If anything positive can come about as result of the senseless death of Michael Brown at the hands of an overzealous police officer, it's a renewed national dialog on the disparities that exist within America's justice system.

The community outrage over the shooting and the subsequent street protests, riots and the accompanying police reaction that have captivated the nation didn't just materialize out of nowhere.

As a well-written article published in the New York Times yesterday  pointed out, the reaction in Ferguson stems from long-simmering tensions that result in large part from patterns in housing discrimination, sharp disparities in community policing and the unequal application of the law based on economics and race.

As officials from the Department of Justice prepare to undertake an independent Federal autopsy on the body of Michael Brown, egregious examples of excessive use of police force against unarmed people of color remind us that this is the 21st century and the color of your skin can often determine how a policeman will treat you.

Michael Brown was jaywalking, he was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer.

Back on July 1st a homeless grandmother named Marlene Pinnock was walking along a highway in Los Angeles in broad daylight on her way to find a place to sleep when a California Highway Patrol officer confronted her, threw her to the ground and savagely beat her in the head with a closed, gloved fist.

Fifteen days later Eric Garner was standing on the street in Staten Island, New York where he lived selling loose cigarettes when members of the NYPD confronted him, a bystander videotaped one of the officers restricting Garner's airway with an illegal choke hold while other officers piled on top of him - Garner was pronounced dead a short time later.

These are just a few examples of violent police responses to very low-level infractions that happened in broad daylight. In each case there were witnesses who saw what happened. (How many incidents happen across America at night when there are no witnesses?)

The disparities in the application of the law impact all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. The statistics are startling. According to, the United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prison population - 60% of those prisoners are black or Latino. (Give or take a few percentage points, blacks make up about 12.1% of the total US population).

A joint research project released in 2012 by the Pew Center on the States and Vera Institute's Center on Sentencing and Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit calculated the annual cost to American taxpayers for running the US prison system was a staggering $39 billion. States on average spend 2.8 times more per prisoner than they do pupils; math that only leads to a perpetuation of the system of mass incarceration in this country - an industry unto itself that lobbies for more prison construction.

Remember it's not just a cost measured in tax dollars alone. We're talking about the creation of a massive underclass of convicted felons and ex-prisoners (many of who were imprisoned for low-level drug offenses) who re-enter society barred from voting and taking part in the civic process of electing people to represent them, face barriers and discrimination in the hiring process, lack of access to health care and are relegated to a permanent 2nd class status that leaves them on the fringes of society.

The issue of disparity stretches way beyond the prism of race; it's goes to the very heart of the US justice system and the definition of who we are as a nation. Remember the "Affluenza" case of wealthy Texas teenager Ethan Couch?

It was a big story last December when Texas District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced the then-sixteen year-old Couch to probation after he slammed into a disabled vehicle while legally drunk. He killed the driver of the parked vehicle and three people (a mother and daughter and a youth pastor) who'd stopped to help her; he also paralyzed one the passengers in his truck and seriously injured another.

Judge Boyd's bizarre reasoning was that Couch had grown up so insulated from personal responsibility as a result of being so spoiled by his parent's immense wealth - so he couldn't be held legally responsible for his actions. We all know where a poor sixteen-year-old in Couch's shoes would've ended up.    

Responsibility lies at the heart of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson. The details of the autopsy reports and the conclusion of the investigations into the shooting will tell us more about whether or not Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will be insulated from personal responsibility for his actions.

Maybe it will also give us some insight into exactly what that blindfold covering the eyes of the symbol of justice in America (with her sword and scales) is blinding her to.

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