Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Insulation Breakdown: Realities of our Justice System are Shocking

By Spike Bradford

Having worked as an auto mechanic, I often think of criminal and juvenile justice issues the way a mechanic would: as an interacting web of systems. After all, a car is simply a series of systems (ignition, electrical, drive, etc.). The mechanical term that has been in my mind lately is “insulation breakdown.” This usually involves stripped wires or damaged circuits or anything that allows current to go where it’s not supposed to. In short (pun intended), this is a bad thing.

Working in criminal and juvenile justice reform-minded research, I experience “insulation breakdown” of a different sort on a daily basis; a good kind of “insulation breakdown.” You see, unlike many that work in my field, I am not from a disproportionately impacted community of color or close to people who have been negatively affected by what I know to be our broken, arbitrary and institutionally racist systems of justice. I am a middle-class, highly educated, Volvo-driving, NPR-listening white guy. In other words, I’m insulated. Insulated in a way that most Americans are when it comes to understanding criminal and juvenile justice in our country.

I am insulated by my neighborhood, the advantages I have in life, the way I’m treated by law enforcement and by the media that I consume. All of these experiences instill a sense that others—those who come in contact with the justice system—are deserving of whatever ill treatment they receive and undeserving of forgiveness and compassion. And, I’m conditioned to believe there is something I need to be insulated from; those wild currents of impoverished, drug-addicted communities that will do anything to feed their habits.
Fortunately for me, my work allows me to breakdown the layers of insulation that lie between my life and our criminal and juvenile justice systems that are, on the whole, horrible, horribly out of control and divorced from rational notions of justice.

For example, I know that people of color (non-white) make up about 29% of the population of the Commonwealth of Virginia but comprise 64% of the state prison population. Read JPI's recent report that I authored: Virginia's Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair to see even more shocking stats. I know that most of these individuals are incarcerated for drug offenses, despite the fact that people of color are known to use and sell drugs at rates roughly the same (or less) than white people and that locking up drug users is grossly ineffective. I also know that arrest, conviction and incarceration statistics are more often a reflection of conscious law enforcement priorities than simply responding to crime where it happens.

I know that many states and jurisdictions continue to put youth in adult prisons and jails despite widespread condemnation of the practice and a long history of documented abuse and horror stories. While there is a legal obligation in the federal system and in some states to keep youth separate from adult inmates, that isn’t the case in all jurisdictions.  And in fact, keeping youth separate (which many corrections officials do to try to keep youth safe, even where the law doesn’t require it), often results in long terms of solitary confinement of youth that almost always suffer from mental illness. (By the way, putting folks with psychological issues in confinement for weeks or months is pretty much the worst thing you can do.)

Depressed yet? Good. You should be. I am confronted with these kinds of facts every day in my work and I consider myself lucky to have my insulation eroded. In fact, I believe it is important not only to uncover these practices and facts (through the ground-breaking research by groups like the Justice Policy Institute) but to breakdown the insulation of the millions of Americans who assume anyone arrested or incarcerated is guilty, bad and deserving of whatever cruelty they get.

You can help promote insulation breakdown by questioning the information given in news stories about crime and thinking about whether the approaches used were the most compassionate or even the most effective. You can try to imagine yourself in the life of those impacted by skewed and harsh justice system approaches.

But be warned. When you begin to break down your insulation to the realities of the American criminal and juvenile justice systems, you’ll be shocked (another pun intended).

Spike is senior research associate for JPI.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely see your point of view on this. I have a parallel type of experience being a bail bondsman in Las Vegas. Often I'm dealing with folks whose life experience was tougher than mine. I was just from a working class family, but luckily was enrolled in well-integrated public schools where the kids were diverse in terms of race, socio-economic standing, culture, and tradition. I'm well equipped for my job, but I do sometimes have that "insulated" feeling too.