Once again we find ourselves reckoning with the reality that we live in a country where justice is applied unequally. But the truth is – unequal justice is no justice as all. To keep our “eyes on the prize,” it might be helpful to step back and envision just what it is we mean by the word “justice.”
Back in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the memorial service for the four little girls who had died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Imagine with me for a moment if he had said these words about the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice.
And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
When Dr. King quoted the scripture that says “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he was referring to something much bigger than what one police officer or one prosecutor does. And it was something much more audacious than what happens in a court room.
Now don’t get me wrong. Dr. King said we should not “merely” be concerned about the murderers. Holding people accountable for their crimes is certainly a part of justice. But the truth is…he had a finger to point at all of us for our complicity.
Too many of us in this country have bought into the idea that jail = justice. If we just send the perpetrators to prison, we can wipe our hands clean and assume that justice has been done. That’s one of the reasons this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yes, I know that its also because of the failed “war on drugs.” But that war was based on the idea that we can effectively deal with a problem by locking people up. So it is our addiction to prison as the solution that is at the root of the problem.
The idea that jail = justice is not something that is simply embraced by conservatives. It finds a home with liberals when we step away from what happens to the poor and start thinking about the crimes of the wealthy. For example, Bailey Miller writes: Can We Please Put Some Bankers in Jail Now? In it, Miller doesn’t grapple with what justice would mean for the activities that led to the Great Recession. The assumption seems to be that – until the bankers are put in jail – justice has not been served.
But Miller does point out that for then-Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (and eventually the Bush administration), the idea of justice went beyond sending the specific perpetrators to jail.
One clue might be the contents of a memo written by Holder in 1999, during his stint as deputy U.S. attorney general. The document, “Bringing Criminal Charges Against Corporations,” urged prosecutors to take into account “collateral consequences” when pursuing cases against companies, lest they topple and take the economy down with them. Holder also raised the possibility of deferring prosecution against corporations in an effort to spur greater cooperation and reforms…
I would suggest that Holder’s concept of justice is more in line with the one articulated by Dr. King. First of all, it took into consideration what justice would mean for all of the innocent people who would be impacted by the prosecution of a corporation. But secondly, more than sending perpetrators to jail, he had his eyes on reforming “the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced” the crimes.
I’ll leave it to another day to discuss the role prisons should play in our search for justice. Suffice it to say, I agree with Al Giordano.
Prison should always be a last resort, and only for someone who will put others at risk with predatory behavior. It doesn’t work as a deterrent. As a punishment, it is barbaric. My concept of a just and better world has almost nobody in prison, not even people I hate or who have done bad things. The whole thing has to be rethought…
A re-thinking of what justice means would require us to consider the affirmative rather than simply the reactionary. One place to start might be with the words of Bryan Stevenson: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. Its justice.” When I think about what that means, it gets the brain synapses going in a whole different direction than jail = justice. And I can begin to imagine what it would mean for justice to roll down like waters.