From the Editors

Categories:  From the Editors    Community
Tuesday, December 9th, 2014 at 4:42 PM

Three facts catch our attention when it comes to the United States’ prison system:

Currently more than 2.2 million people are behind bars in this country — for frame of reference that’s roughly the population of Houston. Equally shocking is that forty percent of those convicted of a crime in Erie County will be back behind bars less than three years after their sentence is up — that’s four out of every ten people. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is that that’s an improvement in recent years, as the national recidivism rate has dropped — albeit it not by much.

Thirdly, while the U.S. has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, it lays claim to 25 prison prison populate. That is, 1 in every 108 U.S. adults are incarcerated.

Whether you’ve been following closely or have managed to mostly tune it out, the news coverage in Ferguson, Staten Island, and most recently, Cleveland are all forcing us — whether we want to or not — to evaluate our legal system to determine just how broken it is and what we can do to fix it. In light of those facts, Dan Schank takes an in-depth look at the problems we face — notably that during the last 25 years, we’ve seen the prison population swell by more than 270 percent — as well as the cases being made for reform and what’s being done locally to address America’s prison epidemic.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have because we’re confronted with questions like: Do the goods of what has stemmed from the Broken Window theory, the notion that cracking down on low-level crimes will clean up a city through order maintenance, outweigh the draconian sentencing practices and the overuse of force that sometimes accompanied such practices?

And to ignore the racial tensions that have also followed such law enforcement measures is hard to do, too, especially in light of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland, a topic Jay Stevens touches on in his column. What Jay addresses is critical to the various discussions being had out by Monday Morning Lawyers on Facebook and the like. The “but Michael Brown and Eric Garner were lawbreakers!” arguments are being offered up at best as a means of influencing our perception that these men were not totally innocent. At worst, they’re an attempt to rationalize their unnecessary deaths.

But what about a white rancher who refuses to recognize federal law and who has called in heavily armed militia members to back down federal officers sent to enforce the law?

Cliven Bundy, as Jay notes, has done just that and is still a free man. And more than that, he’s become a celebrity with a book written about him that he’s out promoting now, while law enforcement has been backed down by his aggressive — and unlawful — stand. In short, Jay writes, “he’s a thief and a bully.” By definition, Bundy’s also a lawbreaker, and although his case may sound extreme, he’s an example of how blacks and whites face two different legal systems.

But again, these are uncomfortable conversations because they force us to deal with issues that without videos, without the Internet, without 24/7 media coverage, we could more easily ignore or simply wish away.

While the Monday Morning Lawyers are casting verdicts with the click of a mouse, another population has also become increasingly vocal — those who just want the whole thing to simply go away, those who are tired of hearing about Ferguson on the news, those who don’t want their Twitter feed cluttered with retweets of the video of Eric Garner repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.”

Perhaps The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart said it best: “You’re tired of hearing about [racism]? Imagine living it.”

Now more than ever we’ve been confronted with the reality that we have not come as far as we would’ve thought — or hoped — since the Civil Rights Movement. We’re also faced with the fact that we live with a broken legal system in need of repair.

So now more than ever is when we must continue to have the conversations that make us uncomfortable in hopes of finding ways to fix that system and resolve the racial discrimination and tension we tried to address fifty years ago.

Erie Reader: Vol. 6, No. 21
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