06/10/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

If This, Then That: Logical Conclusions of a Broken Criminal Justice System

In my wanderings around the Internet, I came upon an online service called IFTTT (If this, then that). If you haven't heard of it, you should check it out. This isn't a review of IFTTT, but I mention it because of its use of the language of logic. It got me to thinking about, well, logic; something sorely lacking in our Criminal Justice System (CJS).

In two of my previous editorials, I shared the feelings of sadness, disappointment and frustration I have experienced as I've waded into the morass of the United States Criminal Justice System and, more specifically, the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of victims of the "war on drugs."

I'm adding "perplexed" to my list of feelings. I'm perplexed over why we are perpetuating a system that has key points of failure which have resulted in immeasurable costs to communities. The logical veracity of those who defend the current system and its "effectiveness" is questionable.

Not to wade too far into the rules of logic, here are three "if, then" points that, for me, highlight the need for reform.

1. The United States has the world's highest incarceration rate. We make up five percent of the world's population, but we have one-quarter of its prisoners. If our CJS is executing true justice and the 2.2 million incarcerated Americans are indeed criminals, then the United States has the most criminal people in the world among its citizens.

2. Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, writes: "Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are White, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino." (Ch. 3 p. 98) More recent studies show illegal drug use is nearly identical between Blacks and Whites, with White Teens having slightly higher use than Black and Asian Teens. If our CJS is executing true justice without prejudice, then Blacks and Latinos use and sell drugs in much higher numbers than whites.

3. After serving their sentence and receiving parole and probation, United States citizens -- even those charged with nonviolent drug offences -- may permanently lose their right to vote, serve on a jury, and be subject to other disenfranchisement as U.S. citizens; 5.85 million people were barred from voting in the 2012 election. If a citizen/offender's sentence is meant to "pay their debt to society," then an offender's rehabilitation, growth, and development are all irrelevant; and the sentence served behind bars is only the beginning of a life sentence. They are in essence quasi-citizens under the burden of a debt that is never paid, facing barriers that hinder them from fully integrating into society.

There are more points and I could go on, but when I dropped these three facts into this "if, then" construct, the inaccuracies were blaring. So let's look at these:

  1. Does America have the most criminal population in the world? Of course not! But what America does have is a broad brush in regard to what constitutes the commission of a crime and therefore labels someone a criminal. If breaking the law, any law, earned everyone the label of criminal, then I would have had that label when I got my first speeding ticket. We need a more balanced approach to nonviolent, victim-less violations.
  2. Do Blacks and Latinos use and sell drugs in much higher numbers than whites? The numbers say no, and I believe the numbers. But even if there were no difference in the rate of illegal drug use between Blacks and Whites, given the incarceration rate of Blacks and the fact that we have a minority population making up the majority of the current prison population; How can the police and the CJS account for the disparity? Although true justice is blind it's pretty obvious that our criminal justice system is not blind to color or race. A colorblind society would not have such a disparity.
  3. Should an ex-offender be able to have some of their rights as a United States citizen permanently or temporarily revoked? No, all rights should be restored upon their release. Should their debt to society include a virtual life sentence relegating them to a place of quasi-citizenship? No, with the exception of violent offences, the offense should not be available to the public in a way that informs potential employers, etc.

These practices have created a caste system of citizens which ultimately has a deleterious effect on our communities. An ex-offender's rehabilitation, growth, and development are both relevant and vital to the health of the thousands of families, neighborhoods, and communities to which they will return. It is in our best interest to support it.

We must course correct by working together to increase awareness and to inform our government of alternatives. Some possible alternatives are featured in the graphic at Real Cost of Prisons.

The focus of an effective criminal justice system must indeed be restorative. We all want the best for our country and its citizens.