(Beth Sholom Synagogue)
Race & Class Equity (R.A.C.E.) in the Justice System
What's the problem?
As Memphis grapples with the evolution of racism in the 21st century, Memphians of color bear the brunt of that struggle. Our criminal legal system is at the root of much of these racial inequities. There is disproportionate minority contact and treatment in policing, the court system, the penal system, and formerly incarcerated residents re-entering the community.
For the past 60 years, Memphis and Shelby County prison populations have increased exponentially and recidivism within three years is approaching 50%. The “tough on crime” approach of past administrations has not been working. With the rise in incarceration rates, poor people, and Black and brown communities in particular, have been criminalized at disproportionate rates. In 2015, Black and brown people in Tennessee made up 17% of the population but 27% of the jail population (Vera Institute). Among our youth, the racial disparities were so critical that the Department of Justice was brought in to monitor the Shelby County Juvenile Court system.
Why should we care?
Our criminal justice system was developed and has thrived as an extension of slavery. Although slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, it has now taken on a new form by using our criminal legal system to lock up a disproportionate number of people of color. The majority of people that enter our criminal legal system are there because society has failed them. If we redirected some of the massive dollars involved in incarcerating folks instead to social programs and rehabilitation efforts, we could make a dent in poverty and education inequities and ultimately make our communities safer. If the most developed country in the world cannot address our failings in this area, we have failed our people.
What should be done?
Fight mass incarceration and the disparate treatment of our citizens by reducing youth transfers to the adult system, instituting a conviction review unit, and reducing pretrial detention.
Work to remove obstacles and restore rights to returning citizens with the automatic expungement of criminal records and restoration of voting rights after time served and sentencing obligations are met.
Seek more just, humane, and community-centered policing with the first step being civilian-led mental health crisis intervention.