We have a crime problem in the United States or, more accurately, a problem in the way we handle crime and so-called criminal justice—and the problem is very white.
Before I get into that problem of color though—race, that is—let’s just talk about the scale of the problem in general. In the U.S., we incarcerate around 700 people out of every 100,000 residents, which is around five times higher than most countries in the world—even though our level of crime is comparable to other fairly stable industrialized countries. Shockingly, according to 2018 data, more than 30 states in this country have higher rates of incarceration than there are in El Salvador, which currently comes in at number two globally after the United States for putting people into prison. Thirty-three states come in higher than #3 Turkmenistan and 38 states outdo #4 Cuba in this area.
We have private for-profit prisons galore in this country. Despite campaigns to get restorative justice used more and despite small but vocal cries for actual prison abolition, the United States over and over again eagerly beefs up its police forces, funds prosecutors well and starves the budgets for public defenders, and basically revels in putting people away to “teach them a lesson.”
A lot of those imprisoned are in for non-violent crimes like drug possession. We give people felony records instead of looking at help and rehabilitation, and destroy their ability to get good employment and dump them back out and wait for them to get desperate and turn to crime to survive, or just send them back for some minor infraction that violates their parole but didn’t even do anyone any harm.
Now add to that the race problem, where Black and Indigenous people are jailed at much higher rates than white people and Hispanic/Latino people. As the NAACP and others have noted many times for ages now, Black and Indigenous people are targeted way more often and more aggressively by police and they are overall charged more harshly than white people who commit comparable crimes and much of this has to do with the modern police system’s roots in “slave patrols.”
So, yes, incarceration is bad all over in this country and yes, it affects white people too, but the impact is far higher on Black and Indigenous people. Frankly, that’s because we as a country just don’t view white crime that harshly. Somehow, when white people break the law, it isn’t that bad or it’s “just a lapse in judgment” or “it was the first time.” Black and Indigenous people don’t get that benefit of the doubt.
That’s why rich white parents can cheat and lie and commit fraud to get their kids into a chosen college and end up with a few weeks or months in prison, but struggling Black women who lie about the address where their children live to get them placement in better public schools for primary education get years.
It’s why a Black person who commits a theft or robbery that disrupts one or a few lives gets tossed away like they are irredeemable while white executives and entrepreneurs and finance folks can ruin hundreds or thousands of lives and see barely any jail time, if they see any time at all.
It’s why white teens and adults can commit rape and get a slap on the wrist because “we wouldn’t want to ruin the rest of their lives” or “because the women enticed them” while a Black woman who fires a shot into the air to warn off her abusive husband gets locked away (in a state that has a “stand your ground” law that should have protected her).
It’s why a white person can set off an RV filled with explosives in Nashville and people debate whether he’s a terrorist and the news media give the matter hardly any coverage after a few days.
It’s why when a bunch of white people storm the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempted insurrection, some of them planning to abduct and kill legislators and the vice president because they were unhappy Donald Trump lost the election, suddenly the arrests are slow to come and the excuses that “they were just doing what their president told them to” or “their hearts were in the right place” come out. It’s why they largely were just allowed to walk away—by police—from the scene of the crime.
I don’t want mass incarceration in this country the way we have it now. It’s awful. But it’s not like I think there aren’t people who do need to be locked up for serious crimes because they are a danger—some people do deserve to be incarcerated. And when we’ve had four years of locking up immigrants in cages and separating children from their immigrant parents to be locked in their own cages by the thousands and when police can round up hundreds of peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors without breaking a sweat…well, I don’t want to hear how the FBI or anyone else is concerned that charging most or all 800 or so of the insurrectionists is impractical because it would swamp the local courthouse.
This is a problem of race and how we treat people of different colors differently when we dish out “justice.” And if we’re going to let off a bunch of people (both general population and people within the government) for attempting a coup, then it’s time to let a whole lot of Black and Indigenous people out of prison with clean slates. If Black protestors and BLM supporters are going to be treated like terrorists when they do nothing violent and are trying to get justice, I expect a lot more punishment for actual white terrorists.
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