Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Overhauling Our Criminal Justice System.

When reading of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, amid the sadness and rage, I had a moment of feeling grateful that we have tools like cell phone cameras and the Internet so that such atrocities don’t remain hidden.

But then I thought of Traudl Junge describing growing up in Germany in the 1930s. After the war she had an epiphany: “But one day I walked past the memorial plaque for Sophie Scholl on Franz-Joseph-Straße and there I realised that she was my age group and that she was executed the year I came to Hitler. That moment I felt that being young actually isn’t an excuse and that maybe one could have learnt about things.”

I think the quote leaped out in my mind because Philando Castile is the same age as I am.

I then have to think about Jimmy Wilson, a black Alabama laborer, who in 1958 broke into the house of a white woman and stole $1.95. He was sentenced to death.

This isn’t new. It’s just a time where those of us with privilege can see these events with a greater clarity.

Perhaps the ugly realization that we have to make about our criminal justice system is that these murders aren’t a sign that it’s broken. They’re a sign that it’s working as originally intended.

Therefore body cameras or piecework legislation isn’t adequate. We need a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. Here’s where we start:

– Start actually applying the Bill of Rights. In particular the 8th Amendment. At this point our judicial system moves at a snail’s pace, where poor people who are arrested for a crime are put in local jails for long periods of time while they wait for their day in court.
– Actually fund the system of public defenders. Give them a reasonable case load
– Entirely overhaul the system of plea bargaining. Many innocent people plead guilty and get felonies on their record and probation because they can’t afford to sit in jail waiting for their trial to conclude. They’ll get evicted or lose their jobs if they wait the three weeks for the trial. So they plead guilty even though they aren’t.
– End the prosecution of victimless crimes. Over half of the prison population is there for drug related offenses.
– More work needs to be done publicly connecting the dots between routine revenue-collecting traffic stops, which disproportionately target people of color and escalate into police brutality, and the ideology of small government/no-new-taxes. So long as cops remain armed and deputized to make up for municipal revenue shortfalls by mining majority-minority communities for ticketable offenses, these shootings will only continue.
– End mandatory minimum sentencing, which keeps the prisons bursting.
– End for-profit prisons, whose powerful lobbies prevent the latter two changes from happening today.
– Ban the box. This is a system of social control where felons are obligated to disclose any felonies on their record. This only became common practice after the civil rights movement when race based discrimination became illegal. To continue legally discriminating, the range of felonies were dramatically expanded, often targeted at social problems within black communities. It’s still legal to discriminate against former felons.
– Currently law enforcement jobs pay the most in the most peaceful and secure communities. Therefore suburbia tends to hire the best cops from around the country, while crime-prone areas, particularly in cities, tend to play only $33,000 per year. That’s what the cops who shot Alton Sterling were making. Make the most difficult areas to police pay the most, therefore drawing the most professional LEOs.
– Train police officers to de-escalate situations. Reorient policing to be social workers who do have the capacity to intervene violently in the worst case scenario, instead of people who are sent to ensure compliance at all costs. A sizable portion of LEOs see themselves as mechanisms of control instead of community servants. That mindset needs to change at all levels of the DoJ.
– Not only make all officers wear body cameras, but make it an unconditionally fireable offense if a violent incident occurs while the camera is switched off. Make all footage available to the public within 48 hours. We have the technology. This not only helps those who face abuse by the police, but it also helps the good cops who are wrongfully accused of misconduct.
– When an officer involved shooting does occur, have it be investigated centrally by the DoJ instead of the local DA, who often overwhelmingly coerce the Grand Juries to not indict local officers.
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