A few years ago I got pulled over and received a ticket.
I became nervous when I noticed that the police car had started following me. I tensed up and kept my hands on the wheel at ten and two. I made sure I didn’t go over the posted limit. I was in the van with my kids, heading to the mall so they could play indoors during the cold weather. Soon after I turned onto the ramp for the expressway, the patrol car lights came on. I muttered under my breath. Immediately I pulled over to the shoulder and waited for the officer to tell me what I had done wrong. It turned out my registration had expired. The officer had noticed I didn’t have an updated sticker on my license plate. We had moved a few months earlier, and I had neglected to inform the DMV of our new address. Consequently, I didn’t receive a reminder to renew, and I didn’t remember all on my own. Of course as luck would have it, my insurance card was also expired (though our insurance was paid up, I had also neglected to print out an updated card).
However, I wasn’t worried that our vehicle would be searched. I wasn’t worried that the officer would presume I had drugs or a weapon, or even a criminal record. I wasn’t worried about being arrested. I wasn’t worried that our interaction would escalate. I wasn’t worried about getting killed.
And while I was nervous during my interactions with the officer, it was only because of my personality. I don’t like to get in trouble with authority figures (just ask my wife). But I wasn’t nervous about my safety or my rights as a citizen. I’m a white male, and those aren’t things I have to fear when interacting with the police.
I politely received my citation and that was that. I continued on my way to the mall.
I’m not writing about this incident in order to talk about whether cops are good or bad. That’s not the point.
Rather, my ability to take my safety for granted in an interaction with the police when racial minorities, especially African Americans, cannot is a symptom that something is wrong with our criminal justice system. By now, the statistics may be familiar to you (And they are not under dispute. A quick Google search led me to a NAACP fact sheet and a list of facts from Alex Jones’s InfoWars, hardly ideological companions, that agreed across the board on the situation).
- The U.S. has 25% of the total prison population of the world, despite only having 5% of the total population. That means that the U.S. has more prisoners than either Russia or Cuba. [Check out these graphics on Vice News that help put it into perspective] Most individual states, including my own South Dakota, have higher incarceration rates than any other country in the world.
- The U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980. The violent crime rate increased from the 1960s until its peak in 1991, but has decreased steadily since then.
- The incarceration rate for African Americans is close to six times the rate for white people. African Americans and Hispanics constitute well more than half the prison population, even though they are only a quarter of the general population.
Recently I finished reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado and my eyes opened a little wider to the problems with how we in America treat criminals and dispense justice. Originally I was planning on writing a long post synthesizing all of the things I had learned about the criminal justice system from these two books (and some other sources), but it’s too much. Now I’m planning on breaking down my thoughts into more manageable chunks and writing separate posts on the many topics involved, such as the nature of punishment (including capital punishment), racial bias, felon disenfranchisement, manipulation of witnesses and memory, among others. So consider this part one of a series of posts in the coming weeks, months, and years, concerning what I’m learning about criminal justice.