U.S. Legal System Accused of Abetting Racism

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March for Racial Justice, Washington, D.C., 2017. Photo by thisisbossi via Flickr

Fixing the flaws in the U.S. legal system “will take a lot more than prosecutors,” Wesley Caines, chief of staff at The Bronx Defenders, told a webinar convened to discuss innovative prosecutorial responses to violence Thursday.

Wesley Caines

Wesley Caines. Courtesy of The Bronx Defenders

“Maybe it’s time for a constitutional convention,” he said.

The webinar was hosted by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The panelists, along with Caines, included Sherry Boston, district attorney of DeKalb County, Ga.; Alec Karakatsanis, founder of Civil Rights Corps; and Lucy Lang, director of IIP.

The discussion was moderated by Tyler Nims, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

The panelists first discussed the causes of violent crime in America and the ways in which the criminal justice system responds to those crimes.

Boston argued that much of the violence in U.S. communities is caused by the twin cycles of violence and trauma.

To clarify her comment, Boston said research on the criminal justice system shows that individuals who went on to perpetrate violence were often victims of violence beforehand.

Boston added that the criminal justice system’s response to such violence is “law and order, lock everybody up—which has led to mass incarceration and not a disruption of the cycle of violence and trauma.”

Karakatsanis went a step further, saying, “Responding to violence has never been the function of the criminal system.”

Rather, Karakatsanis claimed, “The function of the system was to surveil and patrol certain communities and to maintain white supremacy.”

Caines agreed.

“The notion that there has been a response to crime and violence is totally false…Our law enforcement structure in urban areas is about controlling black and brown bodies and in rural areas [it] is about controlling poor white bodies,” he said.

Combating Food Deserts

Prosecutors and police should instead respond to community violence by determining whether “food deserts” exist in high-crime areas and by examining the trauma that residents in those areas face, Caines argued.

To illustrate how the legal system fails to heal such trauma, Boston recalled an instance when a teenager in her jurisdiction shot and killed a three-year-old baby.

Boston continued, “Here we have two families, one that lost a three-year-old and one that effectively lost their child. And we ended up with two feuding families…These people share the same space. They fight each other on Instagram and they see each other in stores.”

Sherry Boston

Sherry Boston. Courtesy of the Office of the Governor, Georgia.

Despite the defendant being convicted and the case closed, “All the anger and trauma was still there…The death of this child affected way more people than just the victim identified.”

The justice system’s inadequate response to violence prodded Caines to “challenge us to extend the notion of violence to institutional violence [and] government violence.”

Karakatsanis joined the challenge, inviting the webinar’s attendees to go a step further in their interpretation of violent crime.

“Violent crime is a socialized concept,” he argued. “It’s constructed.”

Karakatsanis cited forced evictions, allowing lead to contaminate water supplies, and preventing poor people from obtaining healthcare as some of the “many examples of violence that aren’t incorporated into our socialized construction” of the term.

Lang argued that even the legal definition of violence is subjective because it varies by state.

After the discussion on defining violence concluded, Nims asked the panelists what the future of prosecution should look like.

Lang responded: “Going into communities and employing community messengers is a great way to curb the tide of violence.”

Karakatsanis conceded that the future would likely look similar to the present.

“There’s a lot of talk on panels like this about change,” he said. “But I’m seeing very little actual change on the ground.”

Referring to the fact that DeKalb County, Ga., expanded its victim services unit, Karakatsanis commented, “The types of innovative things that [Sherry Boston] was talking about are not the bulk of what her office is doing.”

Are Progressive Prosecutors on the Right Track?

To progressive prosecutors Karakatsanis said, “Put your money where your mouth is. Stop prosecuting low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.”

Lang pushed back, saying that many district attorneys’ offices are now prosecuting fewer cases and types of crimes.

Boston also disagreed with Karakatsanis.

“Kim Foxx in Chicago and Rachael Rollins in Boston…are women that have faced enormous amounts of criticism, including death threats, for their unwillingness to prosecute in the traditional way,” Boston said.

Boston added that change is slow and that “it won’t be solved by one singular entity.”

Karakatsanis responded that progressive prosecutors like Foxx and Rollins are “not transforming anything yet. They are being a little less cruel than their predecessors.”

Boston argued, “Instead of focusing on criticizing the very few individuals who do this work, we should pick them up.”

To see more of the IIP’s work, including their 2019 report on Prosecutors and Responses to Violence, click here.

Editor’s Note: For additional information on reforms to the criminal justice system, please see The Crime Report’s resource page on “Reforming the System.”

See also: “The False Choice Between ‘Progressive’ and ‘Old-Fashioned’ Prosecutors” by Marc A. Levin, The Crime Report, July 7, 2020

Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.

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