The American criminal justice system is broken. The only thing shocking about this is how pedestrian the failure has become. Almost five years ago, the Pew Center on the States found that about one in 100 American adults are incarcerated. Russia, the only developed country that comes remotely close, imprisons about 30 percent fewer people per capita than we do. And we do not care. Most polls asking voters what their priorities are do not even mention the criminal justice system. Given that we live in a time of more than eight percent unemployment, a civil war in Syria and a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology unable to pass a middle school sex education class, a little apathy is perhaps understandable. Unfortunately, it is also dangerous. After all, we are all criminals.
I don’t just mean that we are all tacit supporters of a system that imprisons more people than Stalin’s gulags. Maybe you downloaded The Dark Knight, were in a park after dark or took up two seats on the subway. If you drive like a normal human being and not some infuriatingly cautious pedant who insists upon maneuvering under the speed limit, chances are you broke the law last time you got behind the wheel. If you don’t drive, perhaps you rode your bike after a couple of drinks. Or maybe it was your 19th birthday and you wanted to have just one brew. Or perhaps you insisted on having that beer on your stoop. Or maybe you are the one in five 18-to-25-year olds who have used marijuana in the last month. If you did, don’t feel so alone — almost half of 18-to-25-year olds have tried to get stoned.
We constantly present an opportunity for the police to stop us, investigate our conduct and figure out what they would like to do with us. Luckily for us at Cornell, most of our appearances and resources mean that there are easier targets for police action.
In practice, police may often arrest whomever they want. This unfettered discretion has led to terrible racial and class imbalances. A black man has an almost one in three chance of serving a prison sentence. Working in Brooklyn over the summer, I saw one black or Latino kid after another brought before a court for commonplace conduct, perpetuating an underclass whose only reasonable alternative seemed to be to work outside of the system. You think getting a job with a B.A. in English is hard, try it with a criminal record. Obsessed with numbers, police and prosecutors picked as many of these low-hanging fruit as they could. Across the East River, the financial executives responsible for the greatest loss of wealth in the United States since the Great Depression were free and fine. Ease of proof aside, the basic injustice of such inequity should give anyone pause.
I do need to say that in the few interactions I have had with the Cornell University Police Department, they were competent, professional and kind. The narcotics police that I ran into in Brownsville were a different story: swaggering with badges hidden and guns featured, they seemed to relish their role tearing a rift between the black community and the police.
So what should you do? First of all, protect yourself. Each state varies, so find out what your rights are where you live. Attend events like the recent September 9 know-your-rights workshop hosted by the Shawn Greenwood Working Group, named after the Ithaca resident killed by the Ithaca police. Generally, object vocally but politely to police searches of your person and possessions. Do not say anything you wouldn’t want read in court, out of context and proceeded by “defendant stated, in sum and substance.” Better yet, don’t say anything at all. Ask for a lawyer early and clearly and then shut up. Do record the entire situation. Honest recordings have turned into dishonest cops’ worst nightmare.
Second, educate yourself and others. Read and share The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, or The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz. They provide a much better illustration of the problem than I ever could.
Third, insist that our government do better. We have been fighting the War on Drugs for nearly 40 years now, without success or end-game. The upfront cost to federal and state government this year is approaching $30 billion. The cost to society of having so many people imprisoned and away from their families, jobs and lives is incalculable.
Fourth, have some compassion. It is unlikely that you will ever have to steal to eat, hustle to put a roof over your head or find your hope in heroin. But those that do are Americans too. And there, but for the grace of our circumstance, go we all.
Nathanael T. Miller is a third-year law student at Cornell Law School. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.