On the heels of two recent articles on the causes and effects of the high rate of incarceration among certain segments of the population, an editorial in today’s
Los Angeles Times
says that despite a drop in violent crime over the past two decades, poor urban neighborhoods remain violent.
The articles observed come from academic Heather Ann Thompson for the
and New York U.S. district court judge Jed Rakoff for the
New York Review of Books
. Thompson primarily observed the links between the nation’s explosive rate of incarceration; the war on drugs, and the devastating effects of both that work to destabilize communities, particularly in urban neighborhoods. Rakoff surveyed a plea bargaining system that has led to a remarkably high number of people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. The
opinion writer Scott Martelle presents both writers’ takes on the over-incarceration of poor urban residents, but also writes:
Neither gets at an underlying but contributing phenomenon that jarred me earlier in my journalism career when I spent a lot of time talking with young African American men in Detroit. Many lived with the expectation that they eventually would wind up in jail, a function more of the street culture and their perceptions of the criminal justice system than any direct intent to commit crimes. Part nihilism, part fatalism, it’s an outlook that both feeds into and is a result of a law-enforcement system that ensnares people of color at higher rates than it does whites.
While Thompson concluded that incarceration levels are tied to the war on drugs and other policies that disproportionately affected poor African American men, Rakoff contends that many people in impoverished communities land in prison because they have been strong-armed by prosecutors offering deals that seem like the lesser of two evils. The incentive to avoid a potentially harsher sentence after trial is what Rakoff says leads the innocent to plead guilty.
Last year in the federal system, fewer than 3% of cases went to trial and 30 of the 321 people exonerated by DNA evidence had entered a guilty plea. To circumvent the high rate of plea deals and provide oversight of prosecutors, Rakoff suggests bringing in a third party to oversee the plea bargaining system.
Still, better and broader solutions must be found. We need to look more closely at these relationships, and at stabilizing neighborhoods. Justice is about more than just punishing criminals; it is about fairness and equitable treatment, something we’re sorely lacking. Rethinking incarceration policies and taking a saner approach to policing is a start.