Three Strikes, You’re Out: Mass Incarceration and the Tough on Crime Rhetoric (February)
For February 2019, the Rights Writers discuss their issues in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion), particularly in light of the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency.
For more than 1,600 inmates in Brooklyn, New York, America’s “tough on crime” rhetoric meant more than just harsh sentencing during the Polar Vortex. These inmates had to survive without heat and power in the federal jail when temperatures plummeted to 2 degrees. Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union stated that “It is shocking that the government would hold people for days on end in a dark, freezing jail during one of the coldest weeks in memory.” Though the inmates were set to have heat and power restored, politicians involved in the issue noted that “the warden is not approaching this with a sense of urgency.” This prison was home to inmates awaiting trial or sentencing on federal crimes. Public protests sparked discourse on the ways in which America treats their prisoners.
Before the 2018 Midterm elections, America’s tough-on-crime rhetoric barred 6.1 citizens from voting in 22 states. Approval of Amendment 4 in Florida restored voting rights in the state for people of previously convicted felonies. Politicians have been especially present in the conversation to see how such a dramatic change in legislation may influence future elections in the swing-state. Florida is one of many states that has such a large prison population due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These mandatory minimums do not take into account any outside factors, such as whether or not a person has committed their first offense. This causes many first-time offenders convicted of low-level crimes to receive unreasonably long sentences and punishes offenders who are addicts. The passing of Amendment 4 in Florida is a positive stride towards criminal justice reform, but these efforts are not seen in most states.
Jacques Lebleu; Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jihel/14096849985/in/photolist-ntG3nF-qCLPa5-HT8grm-8y3dYv-24TJRa9-24HaKZU-24BAz9p-5FURAu-bPdZY6-ZTXkpq-pRXdB4-8BoFwS-thEwHF-56h2xC-thJJog-7HwxLf-nfCgC-nfCgw-LVd7js-LYJBPS-jJA5hY-khCAsF-khBUa8-khBSHa-khmAVr-24VMrVf-6JooCr-YTYTfU-24LXine-qnvuFX-6JstBy-q5XMRJ-G32DVz-ZVVFYQ-pqKPyg-26i37FL-pqwpJu-CSzS2h-7CzE4d-khCC8p-khBWcp-8P7M3a-2mrevT-yBR5q-4UCSRj-KgLfXC-3go6s7-e6SJFH-LVd7sJ-5mNRNd)
Despite a number of flaws of the criminal justice system, the American government has been making strides in prison reform. In December of 2018, President Trump signed the First-Step Act which helps to curb mandatory minimums and ease the severity of automatic sentences. It also expands job training and has targeted programming to reduce recidivism rates among the prisoners. For non-violent drug offenses, the mandatory “three strikes” penalty will be lowered from life in prison to 25 years.
Nationwide, 33 states and over 150 cities and counties have adopted the “Ban the Box” rule which helps employers to use fair hiring policies. President Obama endorsed this policy that removes the conviction history question from job applications and delay background checks until later in the hiring process. This legislative movement creates a fair-chance policy that is beneficial for over 249 million people in the United States, families, local communities, and the economy. Though this policy can be helpful, other forms of discrimination may still occur. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic research found that the “Ban the Box policy decreased the probability of being employed by “5.1 percent for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9 percent for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.” The researchers found that this occurred because employers tend to discriminate against racial/ethnic demographics when the record is inaccessible.
Derek Goulet; Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic (https://www.flickr.com/photos/151996707@N06/32059821574/in/photolist-QR1Y1o-5QRG7v-LyKJNc-6NwKNf-8enaPM-kDxoNp-5TH265-bzLWoR-biR1E-5QRLFi-6ow5UN-oJq4fH-dG7TT-29cosQk-kDuLXk-9aMgR1-MEAz2y-6HhRLb-kZ53F4-kZ6HbY-bzLWqH-5QRVPM-4qskfX-nQ2Ftr-avmexu-5gTAuo-kDwnkz-dL6b9U-5QRLug-5QRVye-kDy1u4-2LsQFP-6HMsAq-5QRHtF-bmS5YQ-VbTssq-34LKFR-7FXhLP-7G2eeL-2afpSKd-JWeSCZ-5QW2ud-7D573F-7ciYuS-bqgerw-a5mob5-4WeTMH-7cms6J-5QRMtz-5QRHBH)
The American public has expressed the need for criminal justice reform. In 2017, the ACLU surveyed American citizens to determine their attitudes on criminal justice. 91% of Americans across the political spectrum support criminal justice reform. Additionally 72% said that they would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports the elimination of mandatory minimums, which is a direct contrast to President Trump’s approach.
Public opinion on criminal justice issues has been influenced by the presence of these issues in the media. Kim Kardashian-West has advocated for the clemency of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother sentenced for a non-violent drug offence, and the clemency of Cyntoia Brown. Kardashian-West brought to life Cyntoia Brown’s case when she tweeted “It’s heartbreaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life”, with the post being liked by over 520,000 Twitter users. Twitter users responded to the news of Brown’s clemency by thanking Kim Kardashian-West for her efforts and stressing the importance of advocacy. This is best summarized by Twitter user @MaS1banda when she states “On 7 August 2019, Cyntoia Brown gets her freedom. Finally. Finally. People’s activism matters. People’s activism saves lives”.
The First Step Act and the approval of Florida’s 4th Amendment allow the criminal justice system to move in a direction that better respects human rights. Public opinion on criminal justice related issues is a hopeful sign that America is making strides towards a system that values human rights. Kim Kardashian-West’s advocacy revealed the power that social media has in raising awareness of the issue because people outside of politics are getting involved. Despite these efforts, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve justice in the American criminal justice system.