Viewpoint

We need a justice system that is worthy of its name

President Obama tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma July 16.
President Obama tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma July 16. AFP/GETTY

The United States does not have a justice system.

If we define a justice system as a system designed for the production of justice, then it seems obvious that term cannot be applied to a system that countenances the mass incarceration by race and class of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders. Any system that vacuums in one out of every three African-American males while letting a banker who launders money for terrorist-connected organizations, Mexican drug cartels and Russian mobsters off with a fine is not a justice system.

No, you call that an injustice system.

This is something I’ve been saying for years. Imagine my surprise when, last week, President Obama said it, too. “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair,” he said in a speech before the NAACP, “that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system.” He called for reforms, including the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and the repeal of laws that bar ex-felons from voting.

This was the day after Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, and two days before he became the first president to visit a prison, Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, near Oklahoma City. “There but for the grace of God,” he said, after poking his head into an empty 9 by 10 cell that houses three inmates.

It was more than just an acknowledgment of his good fortune. Given that Obama, his two immediate predecessors, and such disparate luminaries as Sarah Palin, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum are known to have used illicit drugs when they were younger, it was also an acknowledgment that fate takes hairpin turns. And that the veil separating drug offender from productive citizen is thinner than we like to admit.

Welcome to what may be a transformational moment: the end of an odious era of American jurisprudence. Meaning, the era of mass incarceration.

Apparently, the president has decided to make this a priority of his final 18 months in office. Even better, the call for reform enjoys bipartisan support. Republican Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, among others, have embraced the cause. And the very conservative Koch Brothers have chosen to “ban the box” (i.e., stop requiring ex-offenders to disclose prison records on job applications).

All of which raises the promise that, just maybe, something will be done.

It is long past “about time.” Our color-coded, class-conscious, punishment-centric, mandatory minimum system of “justice” has made us the largest jailer on earth. One in four of the world’s prisoners is in an American lockup. This insane rate of imprisonment has strained resources and decimated communities.

It has also shattered families and impoverished children, particularly black ones. So many people bewail or condemn the fact that a disproportionate number of black children grow up without fathers, never connecting the dots that a disproportionate number of black fathers are locked up for the same nonviolent drug offenses for which white fathers routinely go free.

The “get tough on crime” wave that swept over this country in the ’80s and ’90s was born of the American penchant for applying simplistic answers to complicated questions. But bumper sticker solutions have a way of bringing unintended consequences.

We will be dealing with these unintended consequences for generations to come. But perhaps we are finally ready to take steps toward reversing that historic blunder.

And giving America a justice system worthy of the name.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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