How can we untangle structural injustices from self-inflicted harms?

Reactions to issues stemming from mass incarceration are usually dichotomous in nature. On one side, it’s common to hear rhetoric about politics of responsibility — ‘Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” This coalition ignores or disregards inequalities in society that often lead individuals to lawless behavior in the first place. On the other side of the continuum is the blame-the-State bloc. The government is condemning individuals to a life of crime by not giving them a fair shot at success in life. By not providing accessible or adequate means to reach their end goals in life, people are forced to take matters into their own hands to survive. The reality of the situation, of course, is a blend of the two positions.

Even the most hardline pull-yourself-up-from-your-boot-straps types would find it hard to discredit the mountain of evidence that illuminates the racial & socio-economic disparities in the criminal justice system. If you grow up in the hood you have to work twice as hard to get half as far as others. Or, as Biggie Smalls put it, “Either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Acknowledging the structural injustices, and sharing a mutual outrage, can be the start of expanding one’s capacity for empathy and solidarity. By any available metric it’s clear there are profound inequalities in society. Whether it’s the fact that supermarkets avoid ghetto neighborhoods like the plague (which creates food deserts), or the discrepancy between urban and suburban K-12 schools, or the lack of quality healthcare in city neighborhoods, or the role of the police in communities of color vs. white communities, it’s almost as if there is a colony inside of a nation. A combination of these factors, among many, many others, contributes to produce minority over representation in prisons and jails. To deny this reality is to embrace cowardice and apathy, two features that led to the events of last November.

By the same token, individuals who blame the State surely understand that personal accountability is a badge of adulthood. The State shoulders blame for creating environments that are devoid of upward mobility, but personal attitudes contribute to this conundrum. As long as guns and violence remain proxies for maturity, these attitudes will be contagious among youth.

By blending these two positions we can derive a meaningful analysis that can be applied to reform efforts. There is no doubt that the State creates atmospheres that lend themselves to lawlessness — people who have nothing are likely to do anything just to get something. Following this logic, reform should be aimed at the front end of the system to ensure fewer people ever enter the criminal justice system. Or, those who do commit crimes should be diverted to rehabilitation instead of incarceration for the sake of incarceration. Moving the discussion from theory to practice is where difficulty arises. But as long as we can correctly identify the problems, we can position ourselves for a hope of a future in which CA isn’t known for it’s penal exceptionalism.

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