In his writing on justice and equality, Aristotle attempts to define ways in which systems of justice can be used to create truly equal societies. As he lays out his argument, Aristotle introduces the idea of restorative justice as an alternative to deterring crime through punishment. Restorative justice is means for a community to examine its justice system and create policies that work to solve the root of crimes, rather than simply deterring them. It allows the community to move beyond thinking about the individual and look at the system as a whole.
Restorative justice is a useful philosophical approach when evaluating the American justice system. Its ideas can be used to solve an urgent question affecting all Americans:How do we fix a broken justice system when it is perpetrating deplorable crimes against its citizens, rather than providing equality in treatment for all? Our nation's leaders are finally attempting to answer this question through bills like The Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act. Bills like the REDEEM Act would work toward mending the debilitating collateral consequences of our justice system and restore the damage that has been done to far too many Americans.
Anyone who has examined the complications of the criminal justice system is aware of the arguments made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. For years, America's "deterrent" policies in the realms of criminal justice have thoroughly destroyed and dismantled communities of people of color and working class Americans, leaving a cycle of lost opportunities and strife in its wake.
To anyone familiar with these matters, the racial discrimination ingrained in our justice system is more than apparent. According to the NAACP, black Americans are jailed at a rate six times higher than white Americans. Today, this has left us with a system where black Americans account for one million of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States, where one in three black men born are projected to become ensnared in the criminal justice system, where black women are ranked as the largest growing population in jails, and where queer and trans people find frequent abuses and injustice in the prison industrial complex.
We can often trace the destruction of communities of color largely to non-violent drug offenses. These crimes, often victimless and nonviolent in nature, have resulted in extraordinarily long sentences due to to mandatory minimum sentences put in place during the War on Drugs. When looking at data on our criminal justice system it is clear that the type of restoration that needs to occur isn't within individual Americans, but within a system whose defects are casting irreparable damage on communities of color.
The effects of this system were all too clear to me while growing up in rural North Carolina. I came of age witnessing members of my community indicted for nonviolent minor drug infractions. People who were my neighbors and peers were caught between their desire to provide for their families and their inability to do so because of a criminal record. Regardless of their hardest attempts they and their families were constantly caught in this cycle -- a cycle that our country is complicit in creating, supporting and allowing to continue even when it is not functioning correctly. The dreams of my friends and peers had no way of being restored in a broken justice system that refused to respect their most basic rights as Americans.
In many ways, I see The REDEEM Act as the first step in a path America must take in passing restorative laws for our country. The REDEEM Act, is designed to expunge and/or seal records of individuals with nonviolent juvenile and adult records. It is a piece of bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Senator Rand Paul. In tandem with the Smarter Sentencing Act and CARERS Act, the REDEEM Act will put us on the path towards correcting many of the failed policies that have created a system of injustice. It is a much needed shift in American justice and will work towards restoring what was done to our legal system during the War on Drugs. Most importantly, The REDEEM Act will work to advocate for Americans whose lives have been irreparably damaged by defects in our justice system.
The Black Ivy Coalition fully supports and endorses bills like The REDEEM Act as true avenues for change through American government. As Americans, one of our most important principles is the idea that we can challenge the problems we see within our union. Let us also believe in the ability of our justice system to do more than deter crimes- let us also work to restore equal and fair justice to a system that has for so long decimated the trust Americans place in the criminal justice system.
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