Recently, I have been thinking more critically and thoughtfully about the criminal justice system in the U.S. and in New York City more specifically. I discovered the work of the Brooklyn Bail Fund and have been inspired by their work to decrease the burden placed on low-income people facing the criminal justice system.
By now, we know that the carceral state disproportionately targets and punishes young men of color, and poor men of color are especially vulnerable to the intersection of poverty, arrests, bail and jail. As someone who went to private schools and saw the prevalence of drug use by the children of the 1 percent, as a young adult I always wondered why police did not simply target elite schools if they really wanted to find drug users and drug dealers. But we know that they do not. Power, class and race prevent them from targeting that low hanging fruit. Therefore, poor communities are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.
As the Brooklyn Bail Fund explains, “Rikers Island is filled with thousands of poor people accused of petty crimes. They’re not serving time as a punishment. They’ve been found guilty of no crime. They’re languishing in jail because a small amount of bail far exceeds what they and their families can afford. Ninety percent are Black or Hispanic. Their poverty alone imprisons them. The result is two systems of criminal justice: one for those who have and one for those who do not.”
Therefore, the purpose of bail no longer has its intended effects. Because of court fees, poorer families are often forced into plea deals that further disenfranchise them and separate them from their loved ones and their communities. If we live in a democratic society, we cannot continue to incarcerate our citizens, and especially our young, based solely on their economic stability or lack thereof. Poverty should not rob people of their rights, their freedom and their future.
I can’t fathom the number of young men and women of color in Rikers Island awaiting a court date that is weeks, months or maybe even years from now. Jumping a subway turnstile should not adversely alter one’s life for decades to come.
I am making a commitment to educate myself on what is happening to our youth so that substantive action can be taken. The work of Columbia University sociologist Carla Shedd, Ph.D., tackles the difficult questions pertaining to youth incarceration, exploration of the “carceral continuum” and school systems that either educate or criminalize adolescents. Her forthcoming book, “Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice,” will help me become better informed of the problem so that I can figure out the best way to become part of the solution. This challenge seems insurmountable at times, but there are so many scholars and organizations who have their eye on the solution, it is up to us to find them and join the struggle.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Fordham University and the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter @Dr_CMGreer.