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I have always been skeptical of the United States’ criminal justice system, and accordingly, the system is anything but just. The discontent involves the treatment of African-Americans in the country and the rising cases of discrimination and prejudice directed towards people of color. The book Just mercy: A story of justice and redemption investigates the application of the death penalty and the rising number of the prison population in the U.S since the 80s. The book delves into the issue of American racism and Southern terrorism with the southern black communities bearing the brunt of an unjust, corrupt, and racist criminal justice system. In this essay, I will analyze the book to dissect the connection between the rising prison population and racism in America. I agree with the author that the use of the word ‘criminal’ has created a label directed towards people of color that brings forth a damning revelation of existing complexities in American society’s movement towards equality and equal rights.
The book was written by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer and civil rights warrior working in Alabama and Georgia. In the book, Stevenson investigates the introduction of the death penalty and why the U.S. prison population witnessed a surge in the 1980s. His decision to venture into the issue of the death penalty came along when he represented Walter McMillian, an innocent man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. In the book, Stevenson claims that the U.S. legal system has failed and continues to fail many people, more so people of color. Stevenson also argues that the lack of legal representation for people under death row is selective and systematically perpetrated by the high and mighty in the criminal justice system. By using case studies, the author believes that race and the death penalty go hand-in-hand and how prison policies discriminate against juvenile convicts in U.S. prisons. The U.S. criminal justice system has come under heavy criticism for executing individuals who are presumed innocent, in a case termed “judicial murder”. The author also discusses the issue of civil rights and the need to end the segregation that continues to exist in the Southern parts of the nation. However, it suffices to state that discrimination in the South is rife, and the Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 80s are yet to be fully appreciated.
In the book, the author uses individual case studies to document the suffering of people of color drawn from the African-American and Latino community in the 1980s and 90s. Stevenson is particularly incised by the poor decisions made by the criminal justice system and, in particular, the submission of evidence by the police and the prosecution (Stevenson 17). I agree with these sentiments considering that in the United States, the rising prison population number has been achieved through the jailing of innocence and policies that have seen even juveniles looked up in adult prisons. According to Kallsen, the number of juveniles in the adult prison population has been facilitated by the ineptness of the police and the children’s court to avail special conditions to hold juveniles with serious crimes.
Furthermore, this has mostly affected juveniles from minority groups such as Native Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos. The number of youths being tried in adult courts in the U.S. continues to rise, which some as young as 14 years being tried and sentenced to adult courts. Murray argues that criminal justice policies in the U.S. are controversial as they create avenues to imprison children alongside adults, and this has led to increased cases of sexual abuse, injury, and even death. The issue of children being raped and abused in adult prisons is something that the U.S. criminal justice system has turned a blind eye on. Still, prisoner innocence has also contributed to this issue.
In the book, Stevenson claims that since the 1970s, U.S. courts have been ‘forced’ to sentence innocent people to prison, and surprisingly, sentence them to death row. According to Stevenson, “prosecutors and police departments vigorously and viciously” oppose the release of innocent victims and call for the courts to sentence them under capital punishment. The author identifies 13 cases where the victims were innocent by still sentenced to death, the most horrifying being the case surrounding Carlos DeLuna. The case was held in the South, Texas, to be precise, where the author accuses the court of “judicial murder” (Stevenson 156). The sentencing of innocent men and their execution is nothing new in the U.S., as demonstrated by past and present cases that also included extrajudicial killings. According to Berry III, many African-American’s, Latinos, and minority groups have suffered under the watchful eye of people who are supposed to protect mainly the police. Race and class are predominant issues when it comes to the case of judicial brutality, where money and resources are dedicated to protecting police officers who execute people of color with impunity.
Stevenson implores that “racism and classist have been used as inexpensive and quick mechanisms that facilitate fallible convictions”. I agree with these sentiments considering that the majority of prisons in the United States have been privatized. In contrast, others are funded by private corporations run by the rich and whites with the aim of “warehousing the poor”. The rich and the American corporations have the resources, money, and influence to redirect prison polices as documented by the entry of over 200,000 innocent juveniles from minority groups into adult prisons. Moreover, people of color, mostly men, are being handed tough penalties and years behind bars. In this case, I claim that the U.S. criminal justice system is prone to racial and class influence in pursuit of justice as there is a clear lack of mercy in all judicial decisions affecting people of color.
Stevenson uses two themes, justice, and mercy, as interrelated and influential in determining case outcomes. On one example, the Miller v. Alabama case involved juveniles sentenced to life-without-parole(LWOP) points to the ineffectiveness of the U.S. criminal justice system to show mercy and abide by constitutional requirements. The Eight Amendment calls for the consideration of individual or defendants characteristics before sentencing. Still, the LWOP decision towards juveniles indicates a lack of efficacy in applying the constitution. Another clear example of when individual characterization is not considered in the case of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam veteran sentenced to death for detonating a small explosive outside his girlfriend’s home. It was evident that the culprit was suffering from psychological distress by the court’s decision to sentence him to death points to the lack of policies to handle mental issues in the criminal justice system. I agree with this sentiment since, as of 2016, the number of mentally sick inmates in U.S. prisons had almost doubled since the 90s. The reckless decisions by the judiciary to allow mentally ill inmates in the general population without effective treatment continues to plague American prisons, and mostly affects people from minority groups. Furthermore, the issue of veterans’ mental health continues to affect society as there are no clear guidelines on how veterans are to be integrated into society.
Civil rights and liberties continue to shape American politics, 200 years after the first movements towards ending slavery and calls for inclusion. Police brutality towards African-Americans continues to raise discussions as to whether the country is democratic as many people consider it to be. In the book, a typical example is when Stevenson is asked by police officers to step out of his car for a random search. However, Stevenson was sited in his car that he had parked outside his house and dully informed the police officer on the same. However, one police officer drew out his gun and pointed at Stevenson while neighbors stood by watching (Berry III 339). Stevenson mirrored this issue with what is happening in Missouri, where white officers bully and harass black families living in the area. The same situation continues to affect various neighborhoods in America, and unsurprisingly, recent shootings involving black teenagers are no fluke. Stevenson claims that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” points to the ever-growing discontent between African-Americans and white police officers (Stevenson 45). In modern-day America, being black is synonymous with being a criminal, and this has led to many black movements calling for a change in guard in all police departments. Random shootings involving innocent black teenagers have caused shockwaves in the country. Still, none has hurt the criminal justice system than courts setting rogue police officers free.
In the U.S., it is important first to understand the prevailing judicial culture where an in-group versus out-group culture dominates every aspect of the judicial system. Stevenson alludes that “in any legal system, there are two groups; those that abide and those that don’t abide by the law”. I agree with the above sentiment as it essentially means that the first group, the in-group, must provide concrete evidence before being found guilty. Yet, for the second group, the presumption of innocence is void as they receive immediate condemnation. Currently, African-Americans are denied various rights protected under the constitution as they immediately lose almost all privileges once they are arrested. According to Kallsen, once arrested, the out-groups become evil, and the bad guys once they commit a crime. Effectively, this has led to heightened stigmatization, dehumanization, and incoherence in court proceedings. Inevitably, these issues have created a judicial culture that not only negates from protecting civil liberties but also supports a racist and prejudicial system.
I support Stevenson’s argument that the current criminal justice system has created an avenue for recidivism and heightened tensions between the in-group and out-groups. A good example is the fact that racial minorities and the poor are stigmatized based on their out-group characterization, and this ensures that they are found guilty even when a crime has not taken place. Anderson alludes that the creation of a criminal identity targeting out-groups indicates an erosion of previously held values that protect individual civil rights regardless of color or race. Inevitably, this has led to the creation of a criminogenic identity society where arrest and imprisonment only affect minority groups. In the U.S., color is no longer a symbol of unity, but a prescription to judge, prosecute, and sentence minority groups and eliminate every ounce of dignity left in minority groups. Justice and mercy call for an open judicial system, but from the past to this day and age, justice is blind towards truth by enabling blindness towards bias.
I have analyzed the book to dissect the connection between the rising prison population and racism in America. Stevenson examines the U.S. justice system and points out, using facts and testimonies, how justice has eluded minority groups. The death sentence and the LWOP policies adopted have been used selectively to target minority groups. Individualized consideration has led to white police officers who shoot teenagers to face no criminal prosecution. The victims are denied justice and their rights to be heard and served with dignity. Race and class continue to dominate American society, and this has been the epicenter of rightwing political action in the South and now, in areas perceived to be enclaves of the civil rights movements.
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