In the winter of 1964-5, I worked for a non-profit social service agency, and lived with an African-American family in South Philadelphia, not too far from Center City. It was one of Philadelphia”s more integrated neighborhood, with “black” blocks intermingled with “white” ones.
If I was walking with my African-American neighbor’s sons after their school day, or early evening, a police squad car would sometimes stop, and several policemen get out to loudly interrogate the others about what they were doing. I was never questioned, but sometimes they asked the guys I was walking with, “Who’s the white kid?” Occasionally these high school students would be frisked by the all-white policemen.
This was well before the sad, self-destructive riots that shook our nation’s big cities later in that decade into the 1970s. The police presence in that neighborhood was clearly not “of the people,” but more a foreign occupation, and I recalled that understanding as the news media covered the riots after Dr. King’s assassination.
This was Frank Rizzo’s time as a “tough on crime” police chief, but the (illegal) “bookmakers” took bets openly from their homes. There were two bookies within three blocks of my street, one white, one black, and my neighbors all placed bets with Joe, the Italian bookie. When I questioned them why they went to Joe, they all replied that he never gave any problems when paying out “winnings.”
One day walking past Joe’s street I saw police cars at each end of his block, while an integrated crowd milled about by his rowhouse. As I turned into that street, the lieutenant”s cruiser went by me and stopped in front of Joe’s step.
As I passed the police car, I saw Joe gave the uniformed officer a roll of bills while protesting angrily that he had “already paid for the week.” As the lieutenant drove away, Joe told me that squad had changed mid-week, and he’d been forced to pay a second time.
As the police cars left the neighborhood, Joe was already accepting bets from the line of waiting bettors. And a few years later, police chief Rizzo was elected mayor as the “law-and-order” Republican candidate.
Fast forward 54 years: in April, I entered the jam-packed Corning Museum of Glass auditorium to hear Piper Kerman, author of “Orange Is the New Black.” Probably many students were there as a class assignment (hopefully all the criminal justice majors), but even so it was an impressive crowd.
After a brief autobiographical narrative, Kerman turned to the substance of her talk, that incarceration is the new slavery or control of the the poor and powerless, by and for our nation’s elite. As a convicted white drug user, she had “forsaken” her “white skin privilege,” and joined the vast prison underclass.
In public school in the 1950s, I remember being told how evil Russia (then the USSR) and Red China were, with one of the reasons being their large prison populations. The USA now has the largest prison population in the world (or second place if one counts China’s forced “re-education campus” for its Muslim minority).
The majority of American prisoners are substance abusers, overwhelmingly African-American, Hispanic or poor whites. People with money for good lawyers almost almost never go to prison for marijuana, cocaine or heroin use, or even for multiple DUIs.
Just like England in the 17th and 18th century, from which our “founding fathers” fled, we now have debtors prisons for folks unable to post bail or who have served their time, but can’t pay court costs, fines or restitution. As Kerman told the audience, some decriminalization, bail reform and sentencing guideline reductions are all necessary to create a fairer, more rehabilitative and cheaper criminal justice system.
Presently we are mixing people charged (but not convicted) of crimes with repeat offenders, and 17 and 18 year olds with older adults. This is counter-productive to reducing recidivism (the cycle of imprisonment, release, re-imprisonment) and only adds to future social costs for taxpayers.
Decriminalization would remove penalties from many, if not all, victimless crimes, allowing troubled or addicted persons to get treatment. Even in the short-term, treatment is cheaper than imprisonment, and long-term savings to taxpayers would be substantial.
Changes to sentencing guidelines, such as “three strikes and you’re out,” etc., are vital, having forced life sentences many times for minor theft. Absolute mandates (minimum sentences, etc.) cannot serve a constructive role in any judicial system. But the bottom line, from my own teenage experience, and per Kerman’s narrative of her prison experience, is that true criminal justice can only be created by separating justice from race and class.