Recently, Steven Cook, lieutenant to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, commented on the current state of the U.S. justice system: “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed.”
Though some may find Cook’s comment abhorrent, particularly those seeking criminal justice reform, he is not wrong. As it stands right now, our criminal justice system has been built around institutional racism, concentrated more around imprisoning minorities and the poor than actually achieving justice for all.
If by working as designed Cook meant that the criminal justice system is succeeding in imprisoning a multitude of minorities, harshly punishing offenders beyond reason, and overall contributing to our already large prison population, then Cook is correct that the federal criminal justice system is doing phenomenal.
One merely has to look at statistics concerning the prison population to see how the criminal justice system has been built to disadvantage minorities and the poor. According to Politifact, “About 58 percent of all sentenced inmates in 2013 were black or Hispanic, yet the two groups make up just about 30 percent of the total population.” Additionally, Politifact cites a 2004 government survey to shed light on how the poor are disproportionately represented in the prison population, where “incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to incarceration, which is 41 percent less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages”.
These numbers highlight a main problem with our criminal justice system: that it contributes to the overrepresentation of minorities and the poor in the prison population. Of course when one takes into consideration how the system has been set up since the 1960s, then this overrepresentation looks less like a problem and more like an intended solution. John Ehrlichman, domestic policy chief for President Richard Nixon when the war on drugs was first declared, is cited as claiming in 1994 that “the drug war was a ploy to undermine Nixon’s political opposition — meaning, black people and critics of the Vietnam War.”
Though drug policy is not the only contributor to the prison population increase, it can be seen as playing a significant role. Politifact reports that in 1980 “about 41,000 people were incarcerated for drug crimes,” while in “2014, that number was about 488,400 — a 1,000 percent increase”
This context makes it easy to see the discrepancy in incarceration between races in the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health and 2013 FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Despite the fact whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, whites at 9.5 percent and blacks at 10.5 percent, blacks drug related arrests per 100,000 black residents totals 879, while whites drug related arrests per 100,000 white residents totals 332.
There is no denying that the war on drugs has led to the mass criminalization of minorities and an increased prison population. Mandatory minimum sentences often incurred by drug charges also lead to increased time for those convicted of drug related charges, meaning in addition to an increased prison population, there has also been an increase in time spent in prison, even for first time offenders.
Cook was correct when he asserted that the criminal justice system is working as intended. It is following the structure of institutional racism it has been built around, harming poor and minority communities, rather than seeking justice for all. If we truly desire a fair justice system then we must pursue an end to the war on drugs and focus on rehabilitating prisoners instead of just punishing them. Until then, we will remain with the system Cook has applauded.