Justice for some is no justice at all — we must change our criminal justice system
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
These iconic words carry the most ennobling ideas in our country’s history. The Preamble of our Constitution, crafted nearly 250 years ago, explicitly states that to “establish justice” is one of the chief aims of our citizen-led government. Notably, in 1789, the first Congress designed five of the 10 amendments enshrined in the Bill of Rights to protect citizens from an overly zealous police state. This was top of mind for our Founders because many knew firsthand, or were only a generation removed from, government oppression in Europe.
For those of us who seek to apply an original understanding of the Constitution to public policy today, we must be mindful that our Founders wanted an orderly society — but not by sacrificing the liberties of American citizens. Those accused of crimes are not rendered inhuman or deprived of their rights, or of the possibility of repentance and reform upon being accused, or even upon conviction and sentencing.
For their sake, and to protect our own personal liberty from governmental overreach, we must ensure that criminal justice is, in fact, just. Several pieces of legislation are on the table that could bring us closer to this goal.
The Clean Slate Act, introduced in the House by Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) and in the Senate by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), would help reintegrate the nearly one-third of Americans who have some form of criminal record into the workforce after they have served their sentences. It specifically focuses on nonviolent, low-level offenses because, although there should be accountability for such crimes, they do not merit lifelong marginalization and hardship. Once these people reemerge from the penal system, they should be able to live and work freely and fully.
Another piece of legislation, the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act, introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would correct the unjust practice of penalizing defendants for conduct of which they have been acquitted. Any American citizen, even if discerned to have done wrong, is still protected by constitutionally established rights to due process and protection from capricious sentencing.
A third bill, the EQUAL Act, introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), addresses the sentencing disparity in our federal justice system involving penalties for crack and powdered cocaine offenses, which has resulted in unintentional racial disparities and significantly higher federal prison populations. The law was intended to reduce the harm of crack cocaine possession, distribution and consumption. The validity of its original intention may be debated, but it has been proven to have unacceptable consequences.
Each of these bills serves the good of our nation. April is Second Chance Month and an opportunity to think deeply about the real purpose of incarceration — and of penal systems more broadly. Is the purpose to dehumanize those who transgress? Or is it to protect communities and preserve or restore justice within them?
It is not progressive to want the equal and impartial application of the law; it is constitutional. This should be the desire of all Americans, regardless of political affiliation. We all want justice. We all hope for the reform and reintegration of those who break the law, because they are our fellow citizens.
But it isn’t enough to simply want these things, no matter how sincerely we might do so. We must work toward attaining them. We need laws that effectuate justice — or, if we are citizens, we must elect those who will make such laws. With the pending legislation, we can move closer to true justice. “Justice” for some of us is no justice at all.
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