Around the world billions of people living on less than $2 a day face a vast, hidden violence with a starving criminal justice system that fails to provide any meaningful justice or protection from that violence, while in the U.S. we face a bloated system characterized by mass incarceration of mostly young men of color. Both systems do violence to the lives of huge populations of people, and effectively destroy the futures of those people and their families. Two recent reads have painted the picture for me.
For decades the Western world has rightly (though insufficiently, often clumsily and sometimes to the detriment of communities) turned its attention to the plight of the billions of people who lack the access to resources they need to survive with a moderate level of well being, and have poured massive investment into relief and development. This has looked like food, clean water, housing, public health, education, jobs, loans and other forms of economic development. Yet for all of the resources, all the research and investment, little has been done to confront what may be the greatest issue facing those who live in poverty: the sea of violence that descends like locusts on those who don’t have the resources to protect and defend themselves, and who lack a criminal justice system that works on their behalf.
This is the assertion Gary Haugen (of International Justice Mission) and Victor Boutros make in their new book, The Locust Effect. In support of this claim is a stunning breadth of research that unmasks the violence faced by victims of human trafficking, bonded labor, land theft, and police brutality. It is a violence that goes unchecked because, as violent perpetrators know, the criminal justice systems are either extremely inept and unconcerned with those who are poor as to be rendered completely useless, or they can be bought and become themselves the main source of violence against those already abused and marginalized.
The stories of what victims face in police stations, courtrooms, or pre-trial prisons (where they may languish for years before going to trial) are infuriating and the statistics of how rampant this violence is across the globe are overwhelming. Here is just one statistic: “The ILO [International Labor Organization] has estimated that there are about 2.3 million women and girls held in forced prostitution in India alone.” (58) It’s probably because I am currently in India and just spent time hanging out with some of those 2.3 million women whom I know by name, but that number turns over in my head like a mantra. 2.3 million. It’s staggering. And it is a fraction of the violence gone ignored – or exacerbated – by the under-resourced, corrupt and incompetent criminal justice systems around the world.
The Locust Effect doesn’t just describe the problem – which it does with great detail – but dives into the history of why these systems exist (finding roots in colonial justice systems), why they persist (the wealthy and powerful elites benefit from the current system), and what steps can be done to break into the systems of violence. Haugen admits that they don’t know all that needs to be done (because not enough has been tried), but they share examples of hope (historical and present-day) that provide steps forward to bolster criminal justice systems to benefit and protect those in severe poverty.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012)
In The Locust Effect, the authors explain, “Many Western policy experts… have been fighting an onslaught of simplistic, election-year policies that seek to achieve the next marginal unit of crime prevention with ever more cops, stiffer penalties, more intrusive security measures, and more people in prison longer – all at the expense of addressing the profound social problems that generate violent crime.” These experts would fear the “mindless exportation of criminal justice practices from the United States that they criticize for producing massive and counter-productive incarceration rates in their country.” (120)
I don’t know Michelle Alexander’s perspective on bolstering criminal justice systems in the majority world where those systems are clearly absent, but if she is skeptical, her knowledge of the excesses of the U.S. criminal justice system give her good reason. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander explains that while our system does work pretty well for the majority of U.S. citizens, it is systematically doing violence to the lives and futures of millions of young men of color. While this violence may look different than the violence experienced by those in other countries, it is no less of a crisis. In fact, Alexander asserts that the discrimination faced by young black men today is in many ways on par with Jim Crow era segregation and in some ways (though not all) worse.
You’re skeptical, I know. That is a bold allegation.
But Alexander provides a depth of research and stories that are just as infuriating as those shared in The Locust Effect and just as eye-opening. Whatever your thoughts are on the comparison to Jim Crow segregation after you read the book, the reality is clear: “More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War.” (180)
Alexander explains in detail that this is the case because our system targets young black man, largely found in the misguided, politically-created, racist War on Drugs. Yet, “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.” (197)
These men are then unjustly subject to long sentences for non-violent crimes (usually possession of drugs) and then they are spit back onto the street with no resources to provide for a family, into a society that is free to (and in some cases required to) discriminate against them in rejecting housing, food assistance, jobs, and even the right to vote – all because they are convicted felons (for possession of drugs) – and then condemns them when they become repeat offenders.
All of this happens in the age of colorblindness, where racist systems or policies cannot be said to be racist unless they use explicitly racist language – making it near to impossible to prove, at least in the eyes of the courts, despite the overwhelming evidence outside of the language that is used.
A Question and a Suggestion
These two books unmask the violence that is perpetuated or perpetrated by broken criminal justice systems. The striking movement for human rights – and poverty alleviation – that has taken varied shapes in the last few decades must finally confront violence done to the masses of people who are poor – whether in the majority world, or in low-income communities in the U.S. If we are to break into the violence, we must take steps toward what Haugen calls Structural Transformation of our criminal justice systems.
First, the suggestion: Read these books. They, and especially those they speak for, are worth our time.
The Question: As followers of Jesus who take “blessed are the peacemakers” seriously, and believe in non-violent resistance to violence, what is our appropriate relationship to criminal justice systems (by definition a coercive force of the state)? Should we bolster, tear down, transform, critique, or leave these systems to the world? This is a genuine question and I’m curious of what others think.