In a Netflix original documentary titled 13TH, to signify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, scholars, activists and politicians discuss and analyze the criminalization of African Americans in the United States. This thought-provoking film argues that the mass incarceration of African Americans across the United States is in fact an extension of slavery. See NPR Review. The filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s website features the documentary’s official trailer along with a list of reviews from variety of newspapers. Check it out!
POST WRITTEN BY: John Humbach, Professor of Law at Pace Law School.
Much has been written about the extraordinary rates of incarceration as a pressing criminal justice problem. Mass incarceration is, however, only part of the challenge posed by the American criminal justice system. Already, an estimated 25% of U.S. adults have a criminal record and, with a million new felony convictions per year—one every 30 seconds—America’s ex-offender population is growing exponentially (see chart to the right). Our country is well on its way to becoming a nation of ex-cons.
The effects of being a “criminal” do not, moreover, end with release from prison. Newly released inmates are immediately met by a growing assortment of law-prescribed “collateral consequences” that now number in the tens of thousands. In their cumulative impact, these legal disabilities greatly reduce the ability of ex-offenders to find housing, make a living, get an education, obtain bank loans, support their children or, generally, to enjoy the usual rights and amenities of citizenship that are essential for a reasonable quality of life. As a result, our nation’s criminal-justice policy is literally re-making America into a legally divided multi-stratum society with an entrenched system of law-sanctioned discrimination against a large and growing underclass with a legally-prescribed inferior civic status.
Already, the ex-offender class is the nation’s largest legally discriminated-against minority group, and it is growing. The adverse social implications of this trend remain unclear and the critical demographic tipping point is still uncertain. But whatever the details, this is surely not good path for the nation to be on.
- Sarah Shannon, et al., Growth in the U.S. Ex-Felons and Ex-Prisoner Population, 1948-2010, Figure 4 – Growth of Felons and Ex-Felons, 1948-2010 (unpublished manuscript).
The adversarial system may be the best way for a society to adjudicate criminal charges to a result that will warrant public trust. But sometimes it feels like the US culture of adversarialness is just that – a pervasive method of dealing with everything that comes our way, and not simply in the courtroom. Our current political scene is certainly a reflection of that, as is the political gridlock.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled President Obama’s Department of Injustice by Alec Karakatsanis, raises the question of whether our historical reliance on adversarialness – its intentional use for a good societal purpose – may have become reflexive, or unthinking, or may have simply gone too far.
On a similar topic, another example of cultural over-reaction, take a moment to view the July 26th episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, in which Mr. Oliver addresses the phenomenon of mandatory minimum sentencing and President Obama’s recent grants (and denials) of clemency to some low level offenders serving mandatory minimums. In doing so, he “explains why we treat some turkeys better than most low-level offenders.”