As Charleston County prepares to build a new $100 million jail, I found an interesting editorial piece written by television’s Judge Greg Mathis who notes that America’s judicial system seems to lack justice.
Mathis says that blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in this country. In five states, including Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, blacks are 10 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated.
This is in a country where blacks comprise only about 10 percent of the population. So Mathis threw out the argument some might make that blacks have more inclination to commit crimes. Instead, he argues, failed social policies and economic and racial oppression promote the inequities.
“The news isn’t shocking,” he wrote. “African Americans have always known that justice is not blind.”
What is shocking is the effect the current rate of incarceration will have on the black community, he said.
At any given time one in eight black men in their 20s is in jail. If the trend persists, blacks can expect to see their family structures continue to weaken, creating more children who are at risk. Many of those children themselves will end up in jail. In effect, America’s prison system is creating its own future prisoners.
I agree with Mathis’ contention that our failure to provide access to quality education and decent jobs only exacerbates a growing problem, but I think our society has also created a culture that promotes criminal behavior.
The other day while on a west side peninsula street, I witnessed a young man selling illegal drugs from a folding chair on the sidewalk. Why didn’t I call the cops, you ask? His seat was two blocks from police headquarters and patrol cars passed the guy continuously. Instead, I told the guy he was headed to jail if he continued that behavior.
“I ain’t scared,” was his response. An entire generation of young men see jail as a normal part of their life experience. They see drug dealing as an accepted way to earn money and jail as just another consequence.
Fights and the violent shootings that sometimes occur as a result of turf wars have produced about 10 homicides in Charleston so far this year.
That’s a blessing compared to New Orleans, La. where there have been some 200 homicides. While our streets may not be running red with blood, our jails, like those in Louisiana, overflow with black bodies. As I see more and more young men, like the one on the sidewalk, I realize that it’s by grace alone that this community doesn’t see more violence.
Mathis says in order to repair our broken justice system, we need more creative sentencing rather than mandatory sentencing. We should give judges greater discretion.
I would add to that we must begin to head off knuckleheads like the sidewalk drug dealer. I’d bet that guy probably reads on a sixth-grade level and most likely never finished high school.
We’ve got to provide better quality education to kids at the primary levels. Charleston County School District has an annual budget of more than $350 million. What are we getting for that kind of investment when some 50 percent of black students drop out of the system before graduating?
Aside from the cost of building more expensive jails, there are other costs that come with incarcerating a generation of black youth. The cost to taxpayers for social assistance such as welfare and housing should be enough to convince us we must rethink our priorities. But in my mind the cost in lost potential is more than too much.
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