a bird and a bottle


Justice for the Rest of Us?
June 5, 2007, 11:58 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, frivolity, news

So you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing about Lindsay Lohan’s ignominious return to rehab or seeing Paris Hilton’s most recent mugshot. For the most part, celebrities have tended to get away with snorting and driving — a stark contrast to the rest of us, and particularly to those of us living in communities of color. It’s been a jarring and almost blinding hypocrisy.

Today, in an article on TomPaine, the Brennan Center‘s Kirsten Livingston calls our attention to the hypocrisy of American justice. And it’s not only drug rehabilitation that has failed people like Lohan and Hilton — it’s carcereal rehabilitation that has failed them and the wider public. And especially women:

These trends have been especially harsh for women. Since 1970, the rate of incarceration of women has increased more than twelvefold, and although about half of women in state prisons had been using drugs or alcohol at the time they committed the offense for which they were incarcerated, treatment for substance abuse remains grossly inadequate in our prisons and jails. Similarly, there is limited mental health treatment available, though nearly three-quarters (73.1 percent) of women in state prison in 2005 had a mental health problem, compared to 55 percent of men.

As our incarceration rate has grown, moreover, governments have adopted policies that limit the access of people convicted of crimes to student loans, jobs and the right to vote long after they have paid their debts to society. Together, these trends mean that staggering numbers of Americans are either behind bars or disabled from reclaiming responsible, productive lives after prison. Their substance abuse and mental health problems go untreated and, predictably, are often greatly exacerbated by life behind bars.

Research and common sense show that these punitive responses fail to prevent future crimes or provide rehabilitation, while wrecking lives and devastating families. Seven in 10 women enmeshed in the criminal justice system, for example, have minor children to care for.

Not surprisingly, the system has been unduly harsh not only on women but also on racial minorities:

Although African Americans and whites use illegal substances at about the same rates, African Americans are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offences. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of African Americans incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses increased by over 80 percent to 145,000, a number that is 2.5 times higher than that for whites. Affluent whites like Ms. Lohan are far more likely to be let go with a warning, to avoid prison time, or to avoid criminal scrutiny at all. Their substance abuse problems lead them to places like Promises, not the penitentiary. Race and class, then, play a powerful role in determining the consequences of unlawful behavior.

Livingston is optimistic though. She sees glimmers of hope in programs being implemented around the country, from New York’s Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program to a California program that — shock! — is in jeopardy and may lose its funding. I’m not as optimistic as Livingston. I wonder, as Professor Plum pointed out in a comment yesterday, if the racism in our criminal justice system is so ingrained at this point that we don’t even see it anymore except for when it’s smacking us in the face.

I mean, we make jokes at Paris Hilton’s expense, and at the expense of the myriad other celebrities who get caught with drugs but get away scot free. Given today’s biased system, isn’t it they who should be laughing?

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