The America of today is ready to change her conceptions of Democracy and Justice for the future, but she must be cognizant of her history and equipped for the path ahead.
The truth of the matter is that Justice in the United States of America has never been what it has claimed to be. It has never been fairly executed. It has never been blind. It has often been destructive. And it has surely impacted the underpinnings and realization of our Democracy.
From our earliest days as Americans, conceptions of ‘Liberty and Justice for All’ have been boldly proclaimed and indoctrinated into our minds.
Many of us have heard these terms tossed around so much that we hold them to be true without any question or challenge.
And yet, we see our relatives, friends, and loved ones suffer from the same system that we have praised and given a pass–the Justice System. Families, communities, and governments have been torn apart over this issue.
In fact, the United States of America locks up a higher percentage of her population than any other country in the world. Our most recent Census in 2010 showed us that there were 2.3 million prisoners in the United States, surpassing other nations (especially ‘developed’ ones) by a huge margin. These incarcerated individuals are locked up in over 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities, over 3,200 local and county jails, 1,772 juvenile correction facilities, as well as what are called Indian Country Jails, immigration detention facilities and more. And many more are actually affected by this system of incarceration than these numbers lead us to believe.
Our nation’s interpretation of Justice has a rippling effect on all that we do. No aspect of our society is immune.
Students in school settings are being affected. For example, until recently, Illinois was a state where children were being ‘locked away, alone and terrified’ in isolated timeouts–solitary confinement–for ‘refusing to do classwork, swearing, spilling milk, or even throwing Legos.’ Justice and correction was, in fact, trauma for school-aged children, in a space that is supposed to nurture them.
Those who are differently abled and/or deal with the effects of various mental illnesses have been subjected to an unjust school-to-prison pipeline at an alarming rate. The Bureau of Justice shows that a substantial number of those in prison have a disability, and this is coupled with the lack of qualified mental health treatment to meet their needs during incarceration.
Likewise, those experiencing homelessness are affected. Instead of taking a look in the mirror as a Nation and asking how we have perpetuated the issue of homelessness, we have chosen to let its wound fester and its victims suffer. Cities have established ‘sit-lie’ ordinances, which prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks or in public spaces and place those without homes at-risk of becoming engaged with the penal system. Further, millions of dollars have been invested into ‘Anti-Homeless Architecture’, rather than services, clinics, and programming, leading some to conclude that homelessness is a criminal act rather than a complex social condition. One such example is Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman, who was sentenced to five years in state prison in Connecticut for, in part, enrolling her five year-old child in a school district in which they did not live. She wanted a better education for her child and although they were homeless, with no real school district to call their own, she was still charged with larceny.
Those engaged in substance abuse are also not immune. Substance use and abuse affects close to half of the inmates incarcerated in our prisons and jails. And yet, only 11% of individuals who are incarcerated receive the proper treatment while incarcerated — all while legislation is introduced to limit housing and access to nutritious food for these individuals.
Our nation’s stain of Justice is particularly damaging, because many of us contribute to it in ways either consciously or unconsciously. We often hear ourselves calling for the immediate incarceration of those who have been implicated in a crime, but there is little, if any, follow-up discussion about bail, and some are even sentenced to death by a system that has forever ignored the mantra of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
This fateful reality has direct linkage to our Democracy, and more particularly, its roots. This is not to say that the current Commander-in-Chief – one whose ideology serves as kindling that keeps the fires of polarization, misunderstanding, and hatred aflame both domestically and abroad – is above reproach; it is, however, a critique of the notion that America’s Democracy is eroding from a previous state of pristine health. Norms in our nation’s Democracy have long served as a safeguard against harmful policies, ideologies, and leadership prospering in the United States . But these norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, can only serve as a safeguard if: (a) they are understood in a historical sense, and (b) they are affirmed and protected by the common man. The presence of one of these conditions without the other is, at its best, incomplete and left wanting, and, at its worst, dangerous and harmful.
Our nation begs for, and receives, a penal system that is all retributive and none rehabilitative–then wonders what has gone wrong in our society. Instead of embracing the ideals of change and growth, we have clinged to ideologies akin to fighting ‘fire with fire.’ There is a superficial adoption of “second chances”, devoid of a roadmap to prevent recidivism and the possible subsequent need for third, fourth or fifth chances.
The effects of these deliberate choices are saddening. Collectively, people go to jail 10.6 million times each year – a high number because most people in jails have not even been convicted. Much of this population is in jail for the crime of poverty–being too poor to post bail. We spend more on correctional facilities than we do on education. One would think that with all we have to lose, that our Justice System would at least work as intended.
With the ongoing threat to the well-being of our nation, we can no longer wait for change to come, nor can we fight with a lack of urgency. This moral moment requires us to be passionate, persistent, and powerful in our actions. The future of our currently affected brothers and sisters, and the generations to come, depends on us.
The America of today is ready to change her conceptions of Democracy and Justice for the future. We know that Justice, while it may have a common target, has no bounds in whom it affects: young and old, black and white, male and female, northern and southern. And America is more diverse than ever. No lasting and far-reaching movement here in our nation has prospered without the will of the people: not the elites or the privileged few, but the empowered many. With our shared experiences and common adversary, we are best equipped to bring about change. This change first requires, however, a realization of the magnitude of this issue, a recognition of the power we individually have to impact our respective community, and a revelation of the power of the collective.
Let no one dare tell you that this fight is un-American. Dr. King implored us to never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal. This moment demands a coalition of those who realize what our Nation has suffered throughout its history, and those who love our Nation enough to change it for the better.
We see children, tortured and scarred in their places of learning, demand true Justice. We see our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated, whom our society has dehumanized and locked in cages, demand true Justice. We see our brothers and sisters of color, who have been pre-judged and targeted in this nation because of the color of their skin, demand true Justice. We see our differently-abled brothers and sisters, who have been marked as prey our system, demand true Justice. We see our brothers and sisters who are homeless, whom our society has marked as undesirable, untouchable and a nuisance, demand true Justice. We see our brothers and sisters who are dealing with the effects of addiction, who have been disrespected and vilified by our social culture of today, demand true Justice. They, along with so many others in this nation, know that the status quo is not Justice. And we all personally know an individual who has been afflicted by the scourge of Justice in the United States of America.
The future of this nation will be dictated by what we do and what we choose not to do, by how we vote or whether we choose not to vote, by whether we unite together with a shared goal or whether we allow our fears to tear us apart. It is time for us to stand with the movement for true Justice in this Nation, and work towards a better Democracy. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Broadway Books, 2019
I think that you did a great job in this post of illustrating how our specifically American ideas of justice and what it means to be a democracy have led to us not being able to live up to those ideals. I particularly liked how you discussed our particular conception of justice. This is an important distinction to draw because there can be many different conceptions of justice informing the choices that a society makes. I am curious how, and what, you would recommend we change our conception of justice to. One suggestion that I have is to cultivate a conception of justice in the United States based on the principles of justice as fairness as described by the political philosopher John Rawls. This conception of justice seems more in line with the reforms and structuring of society that you are recommending.
I was really engaged while reading your post about our broken Justice system. It is disheartening to know that our Justice system continues to perpetuate this cycle of homelessness, poverty, incarceration, and more because there lacks a comprehensive solution to these different problems that does not immediately turn to locking away people in our society. You mention norms as necessary safeguards against harmful policies, but I wonder how we can make these norms more established and permanent? When it seems that our country is more divided than ever, I find it difficult to believe we can all uphold the same norms in our beliefs. I hope that there is a way to permanently inscribe ideas of compassion, rehabilitation, support, and more into the workings of our Justice system so we can trust that it will have everyone’s best interests at heart.