I can’t remember another time in America where we’ve faced so much national introspection as to who we are, what we stand for, what we’re doing right and, for those with the internal fortitude to face it, also what we’re doing wrong.
“Is America heading in the right direction?” According to a June Political poll, nearly seven in 10 voters responded that, “America is seriously on the wrong track.”
For months, we’ve been inundated with images of nation-wide protests of Black Lives Matter and a host of justice issues. The issue of original and current legal and social justice is nearly as in the forefront of our minds as COVID-19. Perhaps the virus has given us the time to actually think and act on such a soul-searching subject?
Our nation, founded on the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” – wasn’t. Americans may hate to face down our national narratives, but in 1776 justice was surely scarce if you were an indentured servant, a slave, or an American Native… America was “liberty and justice” for the controlling class in a system designed to hold entire populations down in subjugated legal and social prostration. And ever since, for centuries past and still ongoing, Americans have fought between themselves to right those original wrongs. And that battle for realized justice for all — all races, all economic strata — is back, front and center.
Today, America incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. At 700 inmates per 100,000 residents, we top arch-bad guys Cuba by 30%, Russia by 200%, China by 540%, and repressive Iran by 230%. And we incarcerate a whopping 700% more than our next-door look-alike cousins, Canada. Today, nearly 2,300,000 Americans are in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities. And a whopping 10 million will cycle through jails as rotating cogs in this detention-industrial complex we’ve constructed for ourselves.
Are Americans really 700% more criminal than Canadians? Are we really 200% more criminal than Russians? Is justice really 30% harsher here in American than communist Cuba, just 90 miles away?
Or, have we regressed into a broken system that today works as much for the interests working in it and around it, rather than the citizens it is supposed to serve, protect and reform?
American incarceration rates have doubled, tripled and quadrupled, depending on demographic, since as recently as 1980. As serious crime has fallen, incarceration rates have increased. Undue reliance on short- and long-term jailing has kept the prison industry booming.
Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed the increased militarization of our police forces. Far removed from “Andy Griffith” of yesteryear – police today are often armed to the teeth; many forces possess war fighting gear up to armored carriers. Just recently we saw Donald Trump’s (often) unmarked force in full camo warfighting gear. Protesters protested Trump’s essential federal armed invasion of their cities as much as anything else.
Folks don’t like police militarization. It’s intimidating of civilians, demoralizing and stands against liberty. Where America finds itself now is not “normal.” We should no longer accept the present condition of America-as-police-state as “normal.” Our current “law and order” system is not normal. It is dysfunctional when what should be the freest country in the world is instead its biggest jailer – and by huge margins.
Donald Trump posted a Facebook White House message the other day arguing for more police and more “law and order.” His is followed largely by Trump loyalists, yet when I posted the following opposing comment I was met with an unexpectedly warm response.
“We don’t need more police. We need more park directors and more music teachers and more counselors and more “big brothers.” We don’t need more law enforcement – we need more “peace encouragement.”
The “thumbs up” and “loves” came in at about 60%. The nasty stuff ranked about 30%. The notion of investing in people, not just law enforcement, ranked high, with hundreds of responses.
I continued, “Crime is the symptom of things not being right in the first place. If you raise kids right, if you school them right, if they have opportunity, if they are taught civics – there won’t be (as much) crime. More policing is the admission of our failure to create a just society. Until we do that, this crime and protests will continue.”
This is common sense.
Yes, yes, we do need law enforcement. Of course. But our incarceration rate tells us something is terribly wrong at our core. High crime and a militarized response are a symptom of our failure to prevent much of our crime from the start with strong social and family-supporting policies.
And our truly shocking incarceration rates are red flags screaming to us we’ve got fundamental injustices we here and now must face. Some 113 million Americans have an immediate family member who has been to prison or jail. Seventy-seven million of us have criminal records! Nineteen million of us are felons! Surely, surely – we’re not this bad.
Crime, high incarceration, and COVID-19 have collided and will continue to crash as recessions deepen, job losses mount and despair grows. We can respond with ever more “law and order” and rounding folks up to throw them in the pokey. Or, we can look at this unique period in time as an opportunity to “rebuild better.” Many ideas will float to get America going again – and even to keep many from hunger and despair. With clear heads and hearts, we can create a more just America coming out of this devastation – and fix our underlying reliance on excessive incarceration to support and keep the peace.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.