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Southerland Writes on the "Immorality of Mass Incarceration"

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Monday, May 12, 2014

The Immorality of Mass Incarceration

In a piece for the American Constitution Society's blog, Vincent Southerland argues that "criminal justice reforms need to be driven by the moral imperative of repairing all that is wrong with the current system."

Reforms to our criminal legal system, while welcome, are largely driven by financial incentives and budgetary concerns. For example, the organization "Right on Crime" emphasizes "Fighting Crime, Prioritizing Victims, and Protecting Taxpayers" in its tag-line. Rhetoric surrounding important changes to our criminal legal system emphasize the fiscal irresponsibility of locking up people for nonviolent drug offenses, as opposed to the more devastating consequences of destroying lives, homes, and communities of color. The war on drugs can only be truly ended by understanding and acknowledging that the nature of that war was an all out assault on communities of color.

"At bottom, criminal justice reforms need to be driven by the moral imperative of repairing all that is wrong with the current system. As advocates for change, we must make sure that the reform narrative includes the human costs of mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system, not just the concern over dollars and cents. The Moral Monday movement—a multi-issue, grassroots, multiracial campaign active in the courtroom, streets, and the ballot box—offers a salient example of how ethics and the lived experiences of real people can drive change and incite action. The movement shifted North Carolina’s political discourse toward morality while focusing on individual stories and the damage done to real people by real, and unjust, policies.

...Yet the impetus for these changes will be short-lived unless America faces the harsh realities—and staggering moral consequences—of its obsession with mass incarceration. For decades, we have responded to a public health problem—drug addiction and abuse—with a criminal justice remedy, failing to fully understand the complex web of conditions that spur drug abuse. In Attorney General Holder’s words late last year, we have grown “coldly efficient” at warehousing generations of people—the majority of them young men of color. Stark racial disparities are apparent at every stage of the system, from encounters with police, to the severity of charges sought by prosecutors, to the sentences handed down by judges. These systems have ravaged communities, hurt families and relegated generations to a hopeless form of second-class citizenship, devoid of any real political or economic power."

Click here to read the full piece.