Criminal justice?

August 11, 2022

By: Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

The United States of America and its brand, usage and application of the English language are peculiar in one aspect. That is, what you say and hear versus what actually transpires as a result can be vastly different. A classic example is the term “criminal justice.”

According to the dictionary, the word “criminal” refers to anyone or anything that acts against the law; or a commission of wrongdoing. The word “justice” is defined as “the power and authority to maintain what is fair and right.” Combine these two words into the phrase “criminal justice” and you get “the delivery of fair treatment to those who have been accused of committing wrongdoing.”

The fact is, in many cases, the opposite of a fair outcome focused on rehabilitation and restoration is the reality of involvement with the U.S. criminal justice system. A journey through this system is often paved with dehumanizing, disrespectful, and psychologically damaging actions directed toward clients of the system. Instead of being punished for wrongdoing and moving on from there, the system becomes a perpetual punishment program that entraps its clients long after one has completed a prison term.

It appears that incarceration is “big business” in the United States. In fact, our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, presently at 743 of every 100,000 citizens. We have 4.2 percent of the world’s population; yet we have 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, our country spent more than $30-billion on maintaining people behind bars in 2017. With these statistics in mind, consider the following:

• The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that has a bail system that allows cash payment. A person accused of a crime theoretically can pay an amount of money to the court as a guarantee that, if released from custody, they will return to court for trial. If they can’t pay the bail, then they must remain incarcerated until their trial date. They end up being punished for their poverty as well as any suspected wrongdoing.

• Once a person has been incarcerated, they are expected to reintegrate into the community and become productive. However, they often meet with discrimination in achieving and maintaining the basics of independence and survival, such as employment, housing, education and healthcare. A feeling of frustration and futility can ensue and result in a return to illegal activity.

• The systematic denigration of formerly incarcerated citizens often continues into that part of the system known as “extended supervision,” or probation and parole. Rather than encouraging and supporting success in society, probation and parole are often administered in ways that reinforce low self-esteem among clients and result in clients’ failure to complete probation/parole as quickly as possible, thus extending their time in the system or revoking altogether the progress they have made.

• Involvement with the U.S. criminal justice system often comes with a loss of voting rights for the convicted wrongdoer. Only two states – Maine and Vermont – as well as the District of Columbia never revoke an incarcerated person’s right to vote. The other states suspend voting rights on some level and reinstatement can be a years-long process. This can also negatively impact certain populations, particularly minorities.

Criminal justice as practiced in our country has created a waste of human potential that has negatively impacted communities of color disproportionately and is difficult to recover. Until we as a nation and as a community recognize, address and reverse this disparity, the outcomes will continue to emphasize the “criminal” and block any possibility of “justice” for any of us.