criminal justice, police, poverty, prison, public policy, racism, rehabilitation

Turning Points

Let’s hope David Cole is right when he writes that “we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law.” In his NYRB blog post “Getting Past ‘Tough on Crime’,” Cole sums up recent criminal justice achievements across the country:

The coincidental delivery on August 12 of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech calling for measures to reduce overincarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and federal judge Shira Scheindlin’s 195-page opinion declaring the New York Police Department’s aggressive “stop and frisk” practices unconstitutional have led some to suggest that we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law. In fact, the turn began some years ago. Both Holder’s brave speech and Scheindlin’s powerful decision reflect a growing recognition over the past decade—in law and in politics—that something is fundamentally wrong with the enforcement of criminal law in America.

Racial injustice in the enforcement of the law, and its disturbing consequences, have been with us for centuries. As President Obama reminded the nation in his remarks after the conclusion of the Trayvon Martin trial last month, “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” African-Americans today are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for drug possession, even though studies consistently find that whites and blacks use illegal drugs equally. African-Americans are only 13 percent of the general population—and about the same percentage of those who use and sell drugs. Yet African-Americans account for roughly 35 percent of those arrested on drug charges and 53.5 percent of those entering prison for a drug conviction. Much of the rise in the nation’s prison population over the past forty years has been fueled by drug convictions, and African-Americans have borne the brunt of the policy.

But there are encouraging signs that we are moving away from the worst of these practices. While the nation’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1970s, in the last three years the state prison population has decreased. The drop in 2012 was the largest yet. And racial disparities are also diminishing.

Continue reading…

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guns, mental illness, police, violence

Safekeeping

I’ve recently noticed that Salon.com has been posting an increasing number of articles concerning America’s mass incarceration, police brutality, lack of gun control and appropriate health care for the mentally ill. Among the many interesting stories about these urgent—and interconnected—issues one stuck out in particular: In “Half of people shot by police are mentally ill, investigation finds,” Natasha Lennard sums up a study conducted by two newspapers from Maine. She notes that “a lack of police training in crisis intervention as fueling the problem, undergirded by a lack of oversight and accountability.”

Lennard’s article about police officers shooting mentally ill people reminded me of journalist and documentary filmmaker George Stoney, whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago, shortly before he died at the age of 96. Stoney, most famously known for the invention of public access television, worked relentlessly on illuminating (and improving) the lives of the forgotten. Of his many works, one of my favorites was “Booked for Safekeeping” (1960), a short film that advises police on how to approach mentally ill people.

One hint: Guns did not play a role. Neither did injury or violence. Instead, calm talking, patience, empathy, and gentle physical contact once the disturbed person was ready to allow the officer to approach him.

What I take away from Stoney’s movies is that we have to begin solving problems before they escalate and before anybody gets hurt, killed or locked up.

We have to ask ourselves why a first-world country doesn’t offer more nonviolent intervention, such as proper and readily available mental health care and apt police training and oversight.

Here’s part of the article by Natasha Lennard:

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram has found that a disturbingly high percentage of individuals shot by police suffer from mental health problems. There are no federal statistics on police shootings of mentally ill people, but according to the investigation published this week, “a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.” Continue reading

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