MLK Day: A Time to Continue His Work

Considering the Martin Luther King Jr commemoration tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to say something about the ongoing injustices facing Black Americans in the criminal justice system.


                I am not an expert in police brutality issues.  I do not litigate use of force issues nor any civil rights violations.  I will not really touch on those issues here except to say that in my opinion overcriminalization of Americans leads to far too many unnecessary encounters that escalate because of the high tensions that arrest, search, and seizure create.  If we weren’t being policed as heavily, we wouldn’t have as many encounters end in violence.  The over policing is a political issue that cannot be solved by law enforcement itself.  It’s a political and legislative problem.


                Black Americans constitute one million of the approximately 2.3 million people in prison per the NAACP.  This is nearly half in a country in which Black people make up 8%-10% of the population. 


                One in six Black men had been in prison as of 2001.  One in one hundred Black women had been in prison in the same year.  If incarceration of Black people continues at this rate, we can expect 1 in 3 Black men born today to be in prison at same time in his life.


                Black people represent about 12% of drug users in any given month but about 32% of drug arrests. 


                There is no doubt that incarceration as a tool of “correction” affects Black Americans deeply.  It is incredibly problematic.  Incarceration rates that high cause economic disparities in the community, taking Black men out of the earning and employed pool at higher rates than white men.  People who have been to prison cannot simply reconstruct their lives to the point as if it had never happened – they face permanent barriers to employment, education, and housing.  


                There is some evidence that perceptions of Black people as inherently violent and dangerous, and criminal, lead to higher traffic stops and street “Terry” stops.  It is probably true that white people carry drugs far more often than Black people do – but if the white people aren’t being stopped as often, aren’t being frisked, aren’t being searched – then they don’t get caught and arrested as often either.  So, Black people aren’t committing more crimes necessarily but they are being policed more heavily and therefore experiencing consequences far more often.  This racks up over a life time --- the more stops, the more likelihood for enhancements under “habitual” statutes (in Texas) or “3 strikes laws” (such as those in California). 


                It is also true that chronic denial of economic opportunity and development to Black communities leads to a higher rate of criminal activity among the disenfranchised.  Expansion of education and employment opportunities in Black neighborhoods and support of Black business would go a long way to seeing crime rates in these places go down.


                We need to use opportunities like Martin Luther King Day to continue conversations about incarceration and policing.  Decriminalizing nonviolent offenses would lead to a more free, equitable society and better relations between police and the communities they serve.  But to do that, we need to put pressure where pressure is due – with the legislators who make the laws and the elected executors who determine the priorities in enforcement and punishment.