Incarceration is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy. A sobering lesson in humility, jail gives room for us to be grateful for things we normally take for granted. For someone like me who values freedom, personal space, and intellectual stimuli, it can literally be mind numbing. Being told what to eat, when to eat, when to shower, and the humiliation of using the restroom in front of complete strangers are all consequences of committing any crime, be it big or small. If you break the law then you are treated as a criminal, and all criminals are created equal, or so they say.
This was my third time being arrested and subsequently put in jail. The first incident, a result of immature carelessness and reckless abandon resulted in my license being suspended for 6 months. I kept driving my car, for the simple belief that a piece of plastic with a hole in it has no real merit on my capability to drive. In other words, I said f&*k the law. The first lesson I learned about the criminal justice system is that once you are in it, it is very difficult to get out. You will have to jump through an unsurmountable number of hoops. The unorganized, those who procrastinate, and most importantly the poor, will suffer the greatest consequences of this system.
In theory, justice is blind, and it functions within the confines of the law. Crimes are defined based on the laws that are in place and the agreed punishment is set by precedents or previous cases involving the same crime. In that capacity the justice system works, it serves its purpose in preventing and punishing crime. What is not considered when discussing the fairness of the justice system is the origins of the institution and how such origins define the standard criminal. This is where we see the justice system being overwhelmingly lopsided in how it treats People of Color versus White individuals. Without going into an in-depth history of the justice system, people of color, particularly Black people have been, and seem to still be the standard identity associated with criminals. Which breeds all types of ignorance in and outside of our community about how we should interact with law enforcement.
In most major cities the number of brown and black people in jail, greatly outnumber those of white people, but in Seattle and its surrounding areas we see a more diverse mix. In my experiences I have been housed with far more White women than Black women. As well as a myriad of Asian, Pacific Island, Islamic, African, and Latina women. In fact, the entire Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) report only having a 3% population of African, Black, and African American people. This lack of diversity in the area results in a more diverse arrest pattern and more diverse criminal cases. Experiencing the justice system here reveals, what I think, is an accurate depiction of the flaws of our justice system. Racial bias still exist in this city. Even with our low populations the court system still punishes POCs (people of color) more severely than our White counterparts. What I was able to open my eyes to, after this last run in with the law, is the fact that classism is just as pronounced in our justice system as racism.
Those who can’t afford a quality legal representative will be assigned a public defender, a state appointed attorney. These attorneys are often bogged down with hundreds of cases a week. There is no real connection or understanding of the client and therefore no invested reason to provide quality legal services. While I don’t doubt that many individuals come out of Law School with the best intentions, this case load can be mentally and emotionally draining. Those who can afford to be represented fairly in the court of law, often times walk out of court without so much as a slap on the wrist, whether the case is menial or severe.
An excellent case that highlights the class bias in the justice system, is the case involving Ethan Couch. The 16 year old Texan caused a car crash that killed 4 people. His top notch defense team plead that he was a victim of “Affluenza”, siting that he never learned right from wrong because his parents never set boundaries for him and gave him everything he ever wanted. The end result? The judge handed down a sentence of 10 years of probation. Ethan never served any jail time. So in a sense “Affluenza” aided him yet again.
While classism is the main issue all Americans face in the U.S., the secondary reason, in my opinion, is that it’s almost impossible to trust people to do the job of judging others unbiasedly. While the law is setup in such a way that supports justice, the people who are hired to enforce the law are flawed human individuals. Like us all, they have prejudices and bias, molded by their own personal experiences. It is unfair to those in the system to be judged by those who do not look like them, come from the same economic background as them, or have empathy to understand what has brought them to be in front of them in the first place.
Majority of the women I’ve met in jail are drug addicts, who need a different kind of treatment than being in the prison system. Most of the impoverished young men and women are in need of counseling and rehabilitation. While teens like Ethan Couch commit manslaughter and never spend a day in jail. There are serious flaws in our system, and while race plays a major factor, classism is just as prominent. The two issues are so interconnected we have to battle these issues from both sides with equal tenacity. As for my cases pray I get through unscathed and without having to pay another visit to the county jail.