Criminal inequality and criminal justice: Current system in need of reform

In terms of audience turnout, this year’s Access to Equal Justice Conference at the Washington University School of Law was a rousing success. Even the overflow room was overflowing for The Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, who has become arguably the nation’s foremost voice on American prisons and criminal justice inequality. Alexander’s message, however, is far from encouraging.

In her bestselling book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and many subsequent articles and lectures, Alexander has argued that America’s criminal justice system functions as a means of oppression against minorities, especially African-Americans. She also added that, in an era in which vast swaths of Americans believe that we have progressed into a colorblind society, “the new Jim Crow” has become invisible to those not directly affected by it.

The school-to-prison pipeline can also seem like a distant concept for many here. After all, students at an elite university are more likely to be funneled toward jobs as doctors, lawyers, businessmen, engineers and artists than they are toward a life of at least one term behind bars. The reality is starkly different for Americans who do not have the privilege of attaining any form of college degree, much less one from a school like Washington University.

According to Alexander and other scholars, the increasingly prison-like atmosphere of many schools—which includes underfunding, policing of hallways and overreliance on suspension and expulsion—introduces young people to a criminal justice system that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation.

The prison atmosphere is disproportionately representative in predominantly African-American communities. Black students are 3 1/2 times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, according to an informational packet distributed before Alexander’s lecture. They are also more likely to be arrested and charged for drug crimes that lead them into a punitive criminal justice system with high recidivism rates.

Recidivism, or the return of previously convicted inmates to prison, is the crucial element of Alexander’s argument that criminal justice has become a system of social control. In a society in which felons usually do not have the right to vote and have trouble finding employment and mere respectability, the chances for devolving into lives of crime are higher. The prison system, a multibillion-dollar industry, relies heavily on this dynamic, stifling opportunity for meaningful reform.

With 2.3 million people in the United States incarcerated, as opposed to only 500,000 just more than three decades ago, the system begs for change. A strong perception remains that the drastic rise in prison population has kept the streets of the country safer, but we have to ask whether the means of approaching this goal are ethical or even effective. Crime rates have indeed continued to fall in recent years but not at a rate consistent with the growth of the prison population, according to a study by the Sentencing Project. Furthermore, policies like stop-and-frisk in New York City violate the civil and human rights of individuals who are disproportionately black or Latino. Yet just this weekend, an appeals court judge blocked a ruling demanding reforms to stop-and-frisk.

In a more positive development, Target recently announced that it would cease to include a criminal background question on initial employment applications. The change may erroneously come across as a pathway to increased crime, which is why heightened awareness of realities in the criminal justice system is so important. The system has morphed into something more sinister than a crime prevention apparatus, and the law school should be applauded for allowing Alexander to shed light on the issue. Of course, more meaningful reform is the next step, and students at the University should approach it without the blinders of mythology concerning the relationship, or lack thereof, between rates of crime and incarceration.