Locked Out or Locked Up

The fact that the U.S. imprisons more people (per capita and in sheer numbers) than any other country is an embarrassment and a scandal.  It happened over time as a result of state and national policies and will take time to reverse.  But the fact that the U.S. has virtually closed its borders to Syrian refugees is more than embarrassing, it’s a moral outrage.  Yes, President Obama has proposed to allow 10,000 Syrians to enter the U.S. But as the Berliner Morganspost reports, that “is how many Syrians arrived in Munich last weekend alone.”

There is a relationship between locking people out and locking them up. Both are public policies generated by fear.  Why is it that the most powerful country in the world seems the most fearful?

In the 1980s, Americans got worked into a frenzy about a crack cocaine epidemic; the resulting Rockefeller drug laws created the current scenario whereby half of all federal prisoners are serving long sentences for non-violent crimes.  Even more than harsh drug laws, though, what drove our national over-incarceration was a general fear of crime.  In the 1990s, this was exacerbated by a wildly hyped prediction of a dramatic increase in youthful “superpredators.”   The so-called superpredators never materialized, but the myth was born, and one could argue that this racially coded image simply evolved into the present-day image of a young black male wearing a hoodie. 

Fear of crime is reasonable—or was.  Crime rates were indeed higher in the 1980s. But our response to that fear was irrational and created bad public policies.  Now, although polls reveal that most Americans don’t know it, crime in the U.S. has reached its lowest level in many years.  This has allowed a review of the policies that led to mass incarceration, but the conversation so far has spurred only very small steps toward change.

If fear of “crime,” which is after all an abstraction, translates in the media to fear of young black men, fear of “terrorism,” another abstraction, translates to fear of Syrians, Muslims, Arabs, foreigners.  The fact that a popular presidential candidate proposes to register or even ban all Muslim visitors is deeply alarming, whether you think him a demagogue or merely demented.

We now have a lot of information about mass killings in the U.S.  We know extremists come in all political stripes.  Oddly, we label those events “criminal” when committed by typically right-wing, white (Christian?) men, and “terrorist” when committed by others.  (There are also Jewish terrorists, left-wing terrorists, etc.; no group lacks fundamentalist radicals willing to kill.) This year white supremacists or simply disturbed white American men killed nine people in a church in Charleston, SC; three people in a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs; and nine people in Roseberg, OR, among others. An unscientific review suggests that white American “shooters” far outnumber others.

But comparing the relative injury inflicted by people of different religious or political persuasions is not just pointless, it’s obscene.  Better to acknowledge that people in every profession and religion do terrible things and not ban or stigmatize entire groups, whether they’re Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, black youth or white police.

Americans’ xenophobia, with its undeniably racial tinge, has even led to locking people up (called “internment” in this context), most notably Japanese immigrants during WWII.  (German, Italian and other immigrants were also interned, but at 1/10th and 1/100th the rate, respectively).  And of course our justice system has led to millions of Americans being disenfranchised (locked out)—both literally and virtually.  Literally, in the case of the 5.85 million with felony convictions who can’t vote.  Virtually in that a criminal conviction of any kind can mean almost complete exclusion from the mainstream economy.  If we can set aside our fears and act rationally, inclusion, mutual respect and support will always be the healthiest, most constructive social choices.

Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
PO Box 8753, Burlington, VT 05402
(802) 540-0440

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Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform 
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

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