The Common Good

Cory Booker, Rand Paul Shine Light on Shadow Side of U.S. Justice System

There comes a time in every society when it must face its shadow side — and deal with it.

Eugene Parciasepe, Christopher Halloran  / Shutterstock.com
Cory Booker, Eugene Parciasepe / Shutterstock.com; Rand Paul, Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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Societies have myths, legends, and superheroes that lay the foundations for national identity, reinforce beliefs about the self and the other, and shape nations’ collective memory. They exist to make us feel good about ourselves, but as a result, they lie to us and distort collective memory.

As prophets did in the days of abolition, the anti-lynching movement, and the Civil Rights movement, modern-day leaders, like Michelle Alexander, have traversed the country shining light on the myth of equal justice in our justice system.

And on Tuesday, the unlikely duo of Sens. Cory Booker (D – N.J.) and Rand Paul (R – Ky.) joined together to address this myth by introducing the REDEEM Act.

"I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey, and this bipartisan legislation does just that," Booker said in a news release. "The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend."

The measure aims to cut recidivism rates by helping restore people who serve time to right relationship with their communities upon return. REDEEM would redirect minors away from adult courts and into the juvenile court system, automatically seal or expunge juvenile records upon release, and create a path for adults to have their records sealed upon release. The measure would also restore access to SNAP and welfare for low-level non-violent offenders upon release.

“Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed ...,” Paul said in the news release.

From slavery to peonage to Jim Crow to the drug wars and “tough on crime,” the shadow side of our society has repeated the same pattern of confinement and control. Thus, this partnership across the aisle signals a move long in the making: a shifting tide toward a common goal. To illustrate the point, here is a closer look at the shadow side of our existing system:

  • The U.S has 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned people, but only 5 percent of its population.
  • From 1980 to 2010 incarceration rates in the U.S. have increased from 500,000 inmates in jail and prison to more than 2.2 million.
  • From 1980 to 2011, the “War on Drugs” triggered massive increases in the U.S. prison population from 41,000 drug offenders to half a million.
  • For-profit prison companies often demand around 90 percent occupancy from the states that contract with them.
  • Two of the nation’s major private prison companies, CCA and Geo Group, have helped shape policies that favor mandatory minimum sentences.
  • African Americans make up 45 percent prison for drug violations, but only represent 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at the same rates as people of other races.
  • The likelihood that a black man will be imprisoned in his lifetime is 1 in 3. For Latino men it is 1 in 6. For white men it is 1 in 17.

Over the past year people of faith — both Republicans and Democrats — have turned their faces to the shadow side of the American justice system. As a consequence, they have vowed to push for the transformation of our system of retributive justice into a system that more closely reflects the biblical vision of restorative justice — that which seeks to restore the offender back to right relationship with society. They have also vowed to work toward racial equity in the distribution of justice.

Also, over the past year, the Obama administration and Congress have put forward several measures that together have real potential to transform our justice system into one we can truly call just, like Sens. Dick Durbin (D – Ill.) and Mike Lee’s (R – Utah) Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 and Attorney General Eric Holder’s SMART on Crime Initiative.

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaimed to you, that God is light and in [God] there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with [God] while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true: but if we walk in the light as [God] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7)

We are living in historic times. For the first time in the history of our nation, light is shining full on the shadow side of America’s justice system and we are all beginning to walk in it. Now, may Jesus cleanse us.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith – forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.

Images: Cory Booker, Eugene Parciasepe / Shutterstock.com; Rand Paul, Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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