The Real Problem with the U.S. Criminal Justice System

The United States of America represents 5% of the world’s population, yet it houses a whopping 25% of the world’s inmates. Yes, 1 out 4 of the ENTIRE world’s inmates are from the United States! As if that wasn’t enough to get you outraged, we spend 80 billion dollars a year on the criminal justice system. Oh, it gets worse! Black and Brown bodies of all genders are locked up at significantly higher rates than whites.

But how did we get here? And more importantly, what can we do about it? Don’t worry, we’ll give you the low down—which is surprisingly easy to explain. You see, most experts and historians agree that mass incarceration turned into a problem during the 70’s and early 80’s when U.S. elected leaders began overreacting to an increase in crime. During that time, President Reagan declared the infamous war on drugs which rapidly filled our prisons, and unjustly targeted Black and Brown communities even though white communities were using and selling drugs at the same rates. Check out the spike in the chart below!


Now, let’s put it into perspective. We went from locking up about 100 people per every 100,000 residents to locking up 760 people per every 100,000 residents. That’s a HUGE increase!

Throw in a whole lot of racism, implicit and explicit bias, and terms like “Super Predators,” and we have ourselves a crisis of epic proportions! If you’re not familiar with the term, “Super Predators” was used to describe young kids or teenagers, usually Black or Brown, who roamed the city to maim, rob and kill on impulse. This really became an issue when these so called “Super Predators,” went to the nice parts of town—aka rich and mainly white neighborhoods.  So in other words, people were scared shitless of Black and Brown kids for reasons that were misguided, racist, and/or false! Sounds crazy, right?


As might be expected, with the rise of the crime rate—even though crime rates and incarceration rates vary and are not necessarily related to each other—the war on drugs painted a very skewed and racists picture that Black and Brown people are more violent and prone to crime. Yeah, you read that right…

As a result, the U.S. ended up becoming the world leader in locking people up. And sadly, a lot of people got very rich $$$ from the prison system when elected leaders began paying private companies to help deal with the volume of people going to jail.


Now, this isn’t the entire story, nor is this intended to fully explain how we got here. The problem is far more complicated, nuanced and frankly, f***ed up, but this is a decent start. And since the problem is complicated, the solutions often are too. You would think that something that costs U.S. taxpayers 80 billion dollars per year—and is also an issue that voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties want to fix—would have been solved by now, but that hasn’t been the case. Reform has been slow and tedious. So rather than try to tackle the entire system and its problems all at once, those wanting to improve our system are taking it piece by piece.

One of those pieces is the role District Attorneys (also known as Prosecutors in some states) play in the whole system. We’re not talking about the DA’s we see on “Law and Order” or any other TV show, we’re talking about the real ones who essentially decide who’s going to prison and who isn’t, and for how long. The good news is that they are elected by voters and can be fired or re-hired through their elections. *Cue in the gasps*

Yes, not all is lost! Although DAs are incredibly powerful (ninety-percent of criminal cases are closed through a plea bargain, not a judge or jury) they can be fired. What does this mean? Well, this makes DA elections a great place to focus on if we want to actually get to the task of fixing the criminal justice system.


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