The Criminalization of America
A week ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the venue of Harvard University, Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Jr. was arrested in his home by a veteran local police officer, Sgt. James Crowley. A national scandal developed by virtue of the fact that the professor is Black and the policeman is White. Racial profiling is an epidemic which undermines the constitutional guarantee of due process in that police enforcement personnel target minorities based on the pigmentation of their skin. However, in my opinion, although Sgt. Crowley admitted in an interview that he was fearful for his life (“I want to go back home to my wife …”) which may be due to the fact that his ‘suspect’ was a black man, the real issue is why was the professor arrested in his home after he identified himself and proved that he was the lawful resident of the home that was suspected of being burglarized? Clearly it was a false alarm. “It was an act of stupidity” to paraphrase President Obama.
The professor was not menacing. He did not threaten the sergeant. However, the professor was agitated at the intrusion, at the suspicion that he was being racially profiled and expressed his resentment to the sergeant. In short, the police officer interpreted the professor’s words as being disrespectful. How dare he, talk back to an officer of the law? And so, Sgt Crowley taught the professor a lesson. He handcuffed him as a common criminal, placed him under arrest (notably without any resistance) and hauled him off to jail. There the professor was booked, fingerprinted, photographed and DNA tested. He now has a criminal record. The violation of the professor’s constitutional rights, arrest without due process of law, for expressing his rights to free speech, within his home, is the real issue. In his defense, Sgt Crowley was only following standard police procedure: When in doubt or in fear of your safety arrest the suspect. In this manner one can check if he has a criminal record, parole violation, or an outstanding warrant. But, just as important, the suspect is initiated into the criminal justice system for future reference. The dream of law enforcement is for all Americans to have a ‘record’ readily available to be checked.
Americans should be concerned and astonished at the statistics that rank our country at the top of criminality in the world:
– America imprisons 756 inmates per 100,000 residents – 5 X the world’s average.
– One in every 31 adults in this country is in jail or supervised release (parole or probation).
– For instance, in the 2nd most developed economy in the world, Japan, with a population half our size, has a prison population of 71,000 compared to 2.3 million for us – a 32 X difference.
– And, the above lacks information as to the number of arrests. What we do know is that the average adult American has an arrest record.
Why are we criminalizing America? The short answer is that we have gone overboard in our concept of ‘law and order.’ We rationalize the criminalization of America by pointing out that we are a country of laws, that we enforce our laws and not pay lip service to the ‘rule of law.’ However, the real and inconvenient truth is that we have created a colossal mega billion dollar criminal justice system – $68 billion per year on corrections alone – that feeds on itself in order to sustain its growth. And it all begins with an arrest.
Professor Gates is only one of the millions of persons who have been victimized by our system, past and present. But his example, if he can be unlawfully arrested in his own home simply because he was ‘disrespectful’ to a policeman, is a harbinger of the menace to all Americans. The threat of law enforcement against the constitutional rights of all Americans is real. What happened to Professor Gates could happen to anyone, regardless of race, color, gender or sexual orientation. Again, I maintain, the fundamental issue is not racial profiling – it is the abuse of the arrest power by law enforcement. Everyone in law enforcement, prosecutors, prison guards and parole officers should heighten the awareness of their contribution to the injustice of the system. But most important, Americans need to know the truth – that our criminal justice system is a national disgrace, that our existing system does violence to our principles of fundamental fairness and justice. (See: http://www.parade.com/news/2009/03/why-we-must-fix-our-prisons.html).