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How the Criminal Justice System is Dysfunctional according to Paul Butler's Let's Get Free
The American criminal justice system has had a long history of prejudice. From the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision that institutionalized the false concept of "separate but equal" to the Jim Crow laws that followed to the methods of "control" enacted by police in urban communities, criminal justice in the U.S. has seen lots of crime but little justice. Part of the reason for the inherent dysfunction in the way minorities have always been treated in America is that the country was founded on prejudiced WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) principles: the principle of "manifest destiny" was based on the supposedly "divine right" that WASPs had to "control" the New World and eradicate the "lesser" races (such as the Native Americans and the African-Americans). These prejudiced principles were absorbed into the criminal justice system through lawmakers (as seen in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision) and courts, as Paul Butler shows.
The dysfunctional justice system and the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S. are touched upon by Paul Butler in his book Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. Butler begins with the perspective of a prosecuting attorney's view of the streets. Cops and prostitutes know one another, cops for the most part turning a blind eye on the "the world's oldest profession" (Butler, p. 3). Yet, when citizens of the DC area see "cops and the girls yukking it up…a showy crackdown happens for a few days" in order to save face for the police department. The arrested prostitute is brought before a judge because "lawmakers don't want people to have jury trials for certain offenses" (p. 1). Everyone in the courtroom sees the prostitute as a "whore" (p. 4) who has the "temerity" to challenge the system by going to trial. Butler is conveying a sense of the meanness that he himself will receive when he goes to trial later on. The sympathetic reader, however, will already get the point and be asking: what is the courtroom for if not exactly this? Does not everyone have the right to a trial? Here is one example of how the justice system is dysfunctional: as Butler puts it, even in the courtroom, certain defendants have "no defense" (p. 3).
After Butler himself is prosecuted for an offense which he did not commit he realizes the inherent "meanness" that is in the system (p. 28). The criminal justice system with its mass incarcerations (a quarter of the world's inmates are held in U.S. facilities) is engaged in "controlling" urban populations -- not in protecting them. Such a problem has been going on for years. This paper will examine propositions that Butler makes throughout the book and show how they relate to the criminal justice system. It will conclude with a personal reflection on what I learned from reading Butler's book.
Butler makes the proposition that police officers often abuse their power: "They can falsely say that they have evidence when they don't, or that witnesses identified you, or that your friends have implicated you" (p. 28). This is certainly true in his own case: the officer that testifies at his trial lies through his teeth; when cross-examined by Butler's attorney, the officer looks ridiculous. But that's not all: "The police can arrest you for a minor traffic offence like not wearing a seat belt or driving with expired tags" (p. 28). Arrest for such a minor infraction? There is no sense of balance or proportion in the criminal justice system. The heavy hand of the Law is always right and the best thing for any citizen to do is to avoid it. However, this cannot be done by all citizens: In the lyrics of the song "Hip Hop Police," Chamillionaire says, "If you aren't guilty of anything, then why did you run? Cause you the police and plus I saw you cocking your gun, and the chamber wasn't empty, it was obviously one." People, especially minorities, avoid police because police are essentially like highway robbers: "I saw you cocking your gun." Rather than use their position to serve and protect, police use their position to take advantage of and control people in urban and even suburban communities. They use fear tactics (they will "take you away") to intimidate and keep people from challenging them and standing up for themselves. It is a system that clearly favors the powerful. As Butler finds out in his own career, however, the system is flawed: it is full of men quite willing to abuse the power given them. This abuse hurts people in every community because it makes them afraid of the law. It makes officers look unhelpful, like they are "out to get you." It fills the streets with unhealthy tension. There is no respect on either side. The Law suspects everyone who fits their "profile" of what a criminal looks like, and the citizens suspect the Law because they know "justice" does not motivate them in all of their actions, but rather that "control" is what the police base their decisions on. No citizen wants to feel like he needs to be "controlled" as though he were incapable of controlling himself.
Also I agree with Butler that mass incarceration affects in bad ways communities and families. Butler's reasons are very simple to understand: "Too much incarceration creates too many unemployable young men" (p. 33), and: "Mass incarceration changes the way that people think about crime and punishment" (p. 33). The problem that we are seeing in the criminal justice system is that the communities and a sense of community are being obliterated by police crackdowns and mass incarceration. Rather than allowing citizens to govern themselves, the Law steps in and attempts to "control" everything. Families lose fathers and sons. Communities lose leaders. The only thing holding people together is "the Law" which has absolutely no love in it -- as Butler experiences when he is arrested. What then are minorities, who make up the majority of the population in prison, to do? 2 Pac in the lyrics of "Dear Mama" says, "When things went wrong we'd blame mama. I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell / Huggin on my mama from a jail cell." Those who are incarcerated lash out at those who are supposed to protect them -- their families -- only to realize that it isn't their families who are to blame but the "bars" that have driven them apart. The Law is without compassion in this regard. It sees only one purpose: to control urban populations through mass incarceration. It transports young men from the streets into jail cells and keeps them from ever establishing roots or a sense of place and community. The jail becomes their community; prison life becomes their source for culture. The system of mass incarceration does not help criminals to reform -- it only helps to produce more crime. As the urban populace is treated more and more like a pestilence that must be removed, that population moves further and further away from the code and ideals that the Law promotes. The populace is more likely to develop its own sense of morality, its own sense of right and wrong, and its own sense of justice. By attempting to control through mass incarceration, the criminal justice system only shows a complete and utter lack of empathy.
Furthermore I agree with Butler that it is unreasonable for law to use race as a factor for when deciding who is guilty. In his book Let's Get Free, Butler says, "The police claimed that they stop because they do not often see people walking in my neighborhood. I believe that I was stopped because I'm black" (p. 176). Racial profiling is indeed used by police officers, as Butler suggests, and does not promote harmony in communities -- not when every black person or racial minority is looked upon as a suspect. This is not the mentality that supports a "serve and protect" institution but rather the mentality that supports a "control and dominate" institution. Butler also states that "the police think that African-Americans are more likely to have drugs and, accordingly, they stop and search more frequently" (p. 178). Here, Butler highlights two problems: the racial profiling problem and the war on drugs problem. If an African-American buys his narcotics from the FDA approved drugstore, everything is okay. But if he buys his narcotics from someone "not approved" by the establishment, the criminal justice system makes him a marked man. Why should some narcotics be legal and others illegal? The fact is that certain groups profit from controlling the system of distribution. If minorities seek to set up their own drug trade, they are prosecuted. Even if persons within an urban population do not traffic drugs, they are suspected of doing so simply because of their skin color. An atmosphere of distrust is cultivated by this sort…[continue]
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