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Human Rights in the U.S. Criminal Justice System
by Equal Justice U.S.A.
In addition to it's current use and expansion of the death penalty, the United States enters the 1990's with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over one million of our sisters and brothers are behind bars in state, county and federal jails and prisons. Statistics show that very disproportionate numbers of poor and minorities - and, increasingly, those who work in solidarity with them - fill these institutions. A hard and honest look at the demographics of the prison population clearly shows that such systemic biases deeply permeate our criminal justice system -a system promising "equal justice for all." We have identified the primary biases as:
Economic Bias: The majority of prisoners are unemployed or underemployed when they are arrested. One study found that 71 % of those incarcerated earned less than $10,000 a year. Most are illiterate. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of all prisoners are serving time for property (i.e. economic) crime. And, while only 26% of wealthy defendants serve prison time, 53% of poor defendants are incarcerated. Further, poor people are much more likely to receive a death sentence. While the well-off can pay for a quality defense, poor people are often represented by lessexperienced and overburdened counselors.
Racial Bias: Nearly 50% of prison inmates are people of color, and 43% alone are AfricanAmerican males. The exact same proportions are true for death row. Approximately 1 in every 9 African-American males is under some kind of correctional control on any given day. Nationwide, African-American males go to jail at a rate nine times that of whites. The rate for Latinos is twice as high and for Native Americans is five times as high. In Hawaii, three times as many Asian-Americans are imprisoned as whites. Sixty percent of all women in prison are non-white. Put in a global context, an African-American male is four times as likely to go to jail as his counterpart in South Africa, making the U.S. the world's leading jailer per capita of people of African descent. The combination of a white victim and an African-American defendant is much more likely to lead to the death penalty than any other racial combination. Since 1976, no state execution has resulted from a case where the victim was black and the defendant was white.
Political Bias: It is estimated that there are over 150 "political prisoners" currently being held in U.S. prisons and jails. Although the U.S. government denies the existence of any political prisoner in the U.S. system, there is significant documentation of political bias in sentencing and of government targeting of legitimate, progressive organizations and individuals with the intent to criminalize their actions and political movements. Further, there are prisoners currently within the system who clearly receive discriminatory treatment based on their political perspectives and efforts to educate and organize fellow prisoners for humane treatment, services, etc.
Despite this stark and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the majority of U.S. citizens still believe the system provides "equal justice for all." This is due in great part to the fact that we live in a highly segregated society which promotes race and class divisions. As the global and domestic economic situation becomes more and more desperate for the "have-nots," politicians unabashedly play on the fears of the "haves," using tough talk of "law and order," "wax" on drugs and crime and expanded use of the death penalty to gain political mileage (Willie Horton ad, etc.) Such tactics only feed a climate of fear and hatred that ultimately instructs whites to fear blacks and the rich to fear the poor, diminishing the quality of all our lives.
We can begin to overcome this climate of fear. But only if informed and compassionate people speak out and call for a renewal of true justice.
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