Mr. Obama: Tear Down That Wall!

I am thinking about walls today.  The most famous walls such as the former Berlin wall which divided Germany, the wall which divides Israeli and Palestinian people, the wall which was used in World War Two to create the Jewish Ghetto where Nazis exterminated people through starvation and a dozen other cruel methods and the walls which fence off some 12 million people incarcerated in this country. 

 We post the highest numbers of imprisoning our own people in the world. We beat China and are ten times more likely to put someone in jail here than in Europe.  Those numbers come from the F.B.I, not some liberal think tank. Some say the numbers could even be higher if you count other means of incarceration.

Many of those serving time are doing so on a plea bargain.  Whether they are guilty or innocent is no longer the point, the fact is the resources to give them a proper trial don’t exist.  For every public defender there are one hundred fifty to one hundred eighty cases.  That’s triple the case load recommended by the Bar Association and roughly double the prosecutors case load. If you are arrested and you’re not wealthy enough to hire an attorney and post bail you will most likely take a plea. There is not the time and money to defend you so rather than face a life sentence for allegedly stealing something while claiming to be armed, even if that something is ninety six dollars, you plea to a lesser charge and go to jail for five years rather than life, whether you ever committed a crime or not because five years is better than twenty five.

I can’t see how this accomplishes anyone’s goals.  Those who wanted mandatory sentences for certain crimes are not seeing that happen because defendants are ‘pleading out’ and those who think people should not go to jail because they’re poor are only seeing those numbers sky rocket.  No one is profiting except privatized prisons and their stockholders and governmental agencies who gets millions of dollars to allegedly get tough on crime.

If getting tough on crime worked, if we discovered that we were putting fewer people in prison because fewer were allegedly committing crimes then we’d declare it a success. But that’s not the case, we’re imprisoning more people in the last thirty years than ever before.

Many of those people are kids. More than 2 million of them are children, so called “Juvenile Offenders”. In past years what might have gotten you detention or a call to your parents is now a criminal offense.  Fistfights on the playground can land you hard time.  And it is hard time, some twelve percent of children who end up locked away are sexually assaulted, virtually none finish high school, that number is also twelve percent.

The road to incarceration is paved with tears but none more than the path to the not so aptly named juvenile justice system.  Consider that behind every number is a child.  Here are some of those numbers:

Some 2.1 million juvenile arrests were made in 2008, according to the Justice Department. Most of those arrests have nothing to do with the violent offenses; just 96,000 kids were arrested for murder, rape and other dangerous crimes. Property crimes account for 439,600 arrests, while vandalism accounted for another 107,300; drug abuse was the reason why another 180,100 arrests were made while underage drinking accounted for another 131,800. One point eight million cases went through the nation’s juvenile courts in 2007. I got this information from a great website called “Drop Out Nation.”

For all this brokenness we are paying 5.7 billion dollars, just to put kids in jail. That figure is an annual number.  Jesse Jackson used to often say that if we put that kind of money into educating and caring for our kids we would no longer need to spend half of what we spend on prisons, victims and courts.  Yet instead we continue to cut education, food programs, benefits for single mothers, pre-schools and healthcare. Apparently we prefer to lock our poor kids up and their parents at record numbers.

And this is sadly predictable-the numbers of children and adults in prison are greatly skewed toward black and Latino inmates. 41% of juvenile delinquency cases fall into these categories.

Our prison walls are not so different from all walls, they divide us, they tell us that the people behind the walls are somehow so different from us, somehow not so human as we that it’s okay, even necessary to lock them away. If they die while being locked up, well, that’s just a consequence of their actions.  I disagree. I believe it is a consequence of our actions in criminalizing minor offenses, in creating a criminal justice system that is based on the ability to pay for a good defense and post bail and in making being a kid a crime.

President Obama: Tear Down That Wall!  Start by taking kids out of the juvenile system unless they are one of the very few who actually commit violent crimes, provide a proper defense for the poor by lowering case loads of public defenders to a reasonable level, lower bail amounts for non violent crimes or waive it entirely, and take a second look at absurd mandatory sentencing which reduces judges to clerks. While we’re at it decriminalize lapses in judgment like graffiti or smoking weed or two kids in a school fistfight.

I can think of virtually no walls which have been erected in the name of making anything better.




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