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To The People

by Emily Han

To the People…


      I hear you.

      To those who are endlessly oppressed, to those who hurt, to those who demand justice: I hear you.

      I ask that you, the people, hear me too — not because I’m attempting to dispute your ideas, nor because anyone is required to reciprocate the act of listening. I intend only to contribute my thoughts to build upon yours because societal fairness entails collaboration.

      The collaborative nature of the Black Lives Matter movement thus far has inspired me. In listening to its recent dialogue, I have discerned two unequivocal facts: (1) there is egregious injustice in America, and (2) we must restore our country’s inalienable ideals.

      But contention arises when we discuss how to go about this national rebuilding.

      I have chosen here to examine one American institution that particularly frustrates me: the criminal justice system. I routinely decry prosecutorial misconduct, plea bargaining, harsh sentencing, mass incarceration, prison conditions, reentry, and especially recidivism — the injustices are undeniable.

      America treats inmates so poorly, in fact, that many reformers declare we should abolish prisons altogether. This stance has become popular recently because criminal “justice” is inextricably intertwined with racial and socioeconomic inequalities: Black people and poor people are dreadfully overrepresented in incarcerated populations.

      My objective, however, is not to impose upon you an unproductive polemic about the American justice system. I instead offer a different notion: while our prisons are undoubtedly a national disgrace, we cannot simply abolish them.

      Prisons have four primary accepted purposes: punishing the guilty, deterring future crime, incapacitating dangerous individuals, and rehabilitating convicted human beings. Admittedly, the current system is far from favorable, but it is at least functional. Without prisons, incapacitation would be rendered impossible. Punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation would also become unmanageable, especially at the vast scale that confronts our country today.

      If we were to release every incarcerated person in America, 2.3 million people would be set loose. Prison alternatives, such as probation and diversion programs, are not yet efficient enough to handle the sheer number of individuals who would flood their services. In truth, the most likely result of prison abolition would be similar to what occurred after the (entirely essential, I recognize) abolition of slavery: mayhem and widespread contempt for the newly freed.

      Notwithstanding, it would be immoral to neglect our prisons — to abandon the individuals who decay eternally under those cold and uncaring roofs. So, if not prison abolition, then what?

      The replacement for abolition is systemic reform.

      State and federal governments must take responsibility for improving the abusive conditions inside correctional facilities, where inmates are relentlessly dehumanized.

      We must upgrade rehabilitation programs like in-prison education, vocational training, and cognitive behavioral therapy and initiate reentry projects to support formerly incarcerated people.

      Attorneys should avoid encouraging their clients to accept plea bargains. Since our justice system prioritizes efficiency over fairness, 97% of criminal cases never go to trial as well-intentioned, overburdened lawyers resort to bartering away years of their clients’ lives through behind-the-scenes transactions.

      Parole officers should not be so quick to send individuals back to incarceration for trifling parole violations.

      Sentencing commissions should revise their guidelines; punishments for lower-level crimes should involve diversion programs, not incarceration. We need not shut down every prison, but it is imperative that we reduce their populations.

      Ultimately, our American culture must return the dignities of justice-involved people.

      Radical and lasting reform does not require prison abolition; every challenging process must be approached with incremental, manageable progressions. To the radicals, I say reach for the boundless azure — but be practical as well. To the people, I say hope and believe in the attainability of justice, and take the necessary action that such justice demands. To America, I say hear the people.

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