Life Under a Color-Conscious Justice System
Let me get this out of the way to begin with. I am guilty as sin. I was in possession of an armed without permission. I committed a burglary and served 8 years for it. Pleading no-contest did not save me much. My co-defendant (who is white) challenged the charge, was found guilty and sentenced to four year’s imprisonment. I launched an appeal based on unequal treatment. The appeal judges ruled that although it seemed unfair on the face of it given the fact that I had pleaded guilty: my co-defendant had other mitigating circumstances that allowed him to get a lesser sentence. He was married, had three children and was deemed to have a sub-par IQ. His family was under stress given the fact that his father had died of cancer and the family had been in financial difficulties.
The police had labelled me a member of a gang (which gang, they never specified). It was deemed that he had engaged in burglary in order to pay the bills that were overwhelming his family. I on the other hand seemed to have a lot of money (I actually worked hard as a bouncer) and it seemed it was a crime that was motivated by a “pathological personality and a propensity to violence”. The judges felt that my guilty plea was essentially meaningless since the prosecutor already had sufficient evidence to convict me. I was just “manipulating the court proceedings in order to reduce my sentence”. Labelling me as a “gang member” was a master stroke. Nobody was going to defend me or inquire about my rights if I was indeed a gang member. The police and prosecutor had effectively ensured that I was a very unsympathetic defendant.
My lawyer had been somewhat embarrassed when he spoke to me. “You’ve been a naughty boy. I am afraid it is not looking good for you. There were two white elderly people in the house and you are black. The jury is not going to like it one bit. You are better off pleading no contest”. I knew that I was guilty so it was sensible advice which I took. My lawyer explained that with some discounts for a first time offense and early guilty plea, I would get anywhere between 6 and 9 years. The 8-year sentence was on the higher end of the scale but I at least felt I had avoided a potentially 12-18 years sentence in the process.
My Shock and Anger at the Injustice
When discussing our cases, I told my co-defendant that it was better to plead guilty since we were likely to be convicted on the evidence. He said that his own lawyer had advised him against it and that he had also asked that we separate the cases just in case the drama surrounding mine did not turn the jury against him. He was not going to plead guilty but try to bring the matters to close on a plea bargain. Little did I know that this was a ploy to turn me into the evil master mind that had turned an innocent and rather “naïve” white guy into a serious burglar. I did not quite realize how the justice system in the USA is stacked up against young black men.
How could I have known? I had never been arrested, let alone being convicted of a crime. I was so frightened the first time that I entered a police cell. It almost seemed as if everything was in some kind of sickly greyish green color. The officers were matter-of-fact about everything but my lawyer said that I was lucky. That particular station was known for its brutality against black defendants and Mexican detainees. Apparently the thing that saved me was that I was smartly dressed and well-spoken. I did think the lawyer was a bit patronizing but later on everything that he said turned out to be true. I was left feeling vulnerable and rather foolish.
How could I have let myself into the clutches of these people? They had taken all the dignity I had and were now threatening me with something sinister that was not even explicitly defined in the law. My single mother had struggled to get me an education and I had given it all up when I got addicted to steroids and weight training. At the time I thought that it would pay the bills eventually when I became a model but there were no contracts. The ones that I got were asking me to do what amounted to soft porn. When I refused, they showed me the door. My mum wanted to pay for me to go back to college but I refused because I just couldn’t see myself depending on her anymore. I was too old for all that.
The Unquiet Prisoner
In the end, she was the one that ended up dealing with the lawyers. I had some money saved but they had frozen it because the police believed I was leading a “criminal lifestyle”. They demanded to know where I had accumulated all that money. When I told them that I worked as a nightclub bouncer, they thought it rather hilarious. One actually said “Yeah, heard that so many times. Getting boring now”. They really did a professional job on me. Once the trial had finished and I had been sentenced, the accounts were all unfrozen. Suddenly it was discovered that I was not leading a criminal lifestyle. The deed had been done and they had no more use for blackening my name…forgive the pun but it is what it is.
I really should have gotten my warnings from the fact that my co-defendant was able to secure bail very easily whereas I had to make multiple applications. Later on when I admitted the charge, they said there was no point since I was going to jail for a long time anyway. It was the first hint that there was a color barrier in the criminal justice system. When I got out, I actually started researching the topic and my findings did not give me any joy. The entire system is rotten from the top to the bottom. It seems that we black people are nothing more than target practice for the law enforcement agencies.
The statistics tell their own story. Black and Hispanic drivers are three times more likely to be stopped and searched than their White Caucasian counterparts. In 1989, there were less than 5 incidents of white people arrested for drugs offences. By contrast there were over 150 million incidents of Black people arrested for drug related offenses in the USA (Kahn & Kirk, 2015). There is a relationship between those statistics and the fact that drugs-related sentences are significantly higher than certain similarly serious offenses such as pedophilia, embezzlement and even homicide. To me it seems as if the criminal justice system wants to incarcerate as many black people as possible within the shortest period of time. That is why we are called “super predators” which is our assigned occupation if we manage to stop being “welfare queens”.
An Unjust Justice System
Since we are here to stay, there is no option for us than to challenge the status quo. We can no longer remain silent when we are criminalized and ostracized by our own government. Of course some would say (with some justification by the way) that I am a criminal who deserves that I got. However, that may be true; but I deserved to be treated equally under the law. There are very many questions to which I have not yet received a satisfactory answer. In any case, nobody is there to answer them. I am an invisible statistic that can be ignored or trivialized at the mercy of the system.
Why was my co-defendant given the benefit of doubt on the same set of circumstances? Why was his personal struggles given credence in the sentencing? Why did the victims (who were white) insist that he should not be given a long sentence whereas their statement at my own sentence hearing was full of condemnation? Why was their racism accepted by the prosecutor and my defense attorney? Why is it that my attorney accurately described the institutionalized racism at the heart of the criminal justice system in the USA?
At least I had a supportive family and money to get me back on my feet. Many other young black men are just left to rot in prison. When they come out, they are even more hardened criminals who soon return to prison for even longer sentences. When the judges get tired of seeing the same faces and the same charges, they simply cut out the middle man by imposing a mandatory life sentence. That will “take them off the streets” according to some people. In reality, there will come a time when America has a ceiling for the sheer numbers of black and Hispanic men they want to incarcerate for long periods of time.
Kahn, A. & Kirk, C., 2015. What It’s Like to Be Black in the Criminal Justice System. [Online]
Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2015/08/racial_disparities_in_the_criminal_justice_system_eight_charts_illustrating.html
[Accessed 15th October 2017].