The U.S. Criminal Justice System is Rigged in favor of the Wealthy

By Brett Harmon

America is based on the premise of a powerful democracy that promises equal rights to all people, although in reality the criminal justice system is broken. As a society, we favor affluent white people and constantly tear down the poor. Each and every day poor people are victims of injustice because of criminal charges, misdemeanors and arrests, oftentimes without committing a crime.  

Mass incarceration in America is more common than any other country in the world. Hillary Clinton noted during her presidential campaign that the U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Many of these are victims of the unfair accusations in our law enforcement. We can expand awareness surrounding equality and civil rights, thereby helping to reduce the number of people getting cheated in our criminal justice system. Federal government can change police conduct towards poor people and enforce new laws to reduce the acts of injustice.

These acts of injustice come when police officers make unjust accusations based on the color of a person’s skin. According to Cherise Fanno Burdeen from The Atlantic, almost all of the 12 million jail bookings per year come from small non-violent charges. Many of these accused victims are held in jail because of their inability to pay bail. These low-risk defendants are kept in detention for extended periods of time waiting for their trial to take place even if they didn’t commit any crime.

Furthermore, people of color are more likely to become entangled in our unfair criminal justice system. A statistic from 2001 showed that 1 in every 3 black males will go to prison at some point in their lifetime compared to 1 out of every 17 white males. Jamal Hagler from the Center for American Progress found some more interesting facts on these acts of injustice. People of color are overrepresented in U.S. prisons, making up more than 60 percent of the total population behind bars. People of color are simply more likely to be targeted by the police.

Many of these low risk defendants wait in jail for weeks, months and even years before having a trial. The bail system is used to deprive the freedom of these innocent defendants that can’t afford to pay bail. Norman Reimer, the executive director of the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, spoke about this issue regarding America’s bail system in The Guardian, “Bail is used as ransom to extract a guilty plea. Fact.”

Reimer’s comment speaks for our rigged criminal justice system. For most traffic stops, there’s no going back for people of color. This could be addressed by forcing new standards of conduct in our police officers that prevents racism in both criminal charges and punishments. This new conduct will prevent police officers from operating in an aggressive and racist way towards people of color.

The U.S. federal government spends billions of dollars every year locking up poor people behind bars. The money comes from pretrial confinement, better known as taking away freedom from someone before they are convicted of a crime. Our country’s debt from pretrial confinement would be better spent on creating community programs for individuals with mental health illnesses and substance abuse challenges, or investing in providing affordable early on education in poverty-stricken areas.

While these heavy financial burdens come from locking up people behind bars, stricter state laws would bring more money to the federal government and increase equality and fair treatment in our criminal justice system. New state laws that required state compensation to the exonerated would be a tremendous policy to help the poor people. A law that required all states to provide compensation to the exonerated would decrease the debt coming from the glaring disparities in U.S. jails. These laws would allow defendants to leave jail before awaiting a trial. America needs to take a stand and enforce these laws to reduce the burdens on the targeted poor people.

The U.S. criminal justice system is far from being perfect, but stands as one of the strongest in the world, with the consistency in our democracy that guarantees everyone equal rights. Although the poor and people of color are often targeted by the police, our federal government can look towards giving these people equal justice through new laws that will build up the broken system. Stricter police conduct at the state and local levels as well as new laws for compensation to the exonerated would dramatically improve America’s justice system and lower mass incarceration levels. The federal government needs to take a stand in favor of protecting the civil rights of poor people and people of color, spreading equality and ending the frequent acts of injustice in our criminal justice system.

Graphic by David Giacomini

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