As reported in the AJC, seventeen-year-old Jaydon Lee Reid from Cobb County, Georgia was just given two life sentences and an additional fifteen years for the shooting of Terrence Banks and Sterling Hargrave when he was fourteen years old. While much work around juvenile justice and reducing prison sentences focuses on commuting the sentences or eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders, it is essential for those troubled by the US police state to grapple with how society can justly respond to violent crimes, especially those committed by youths.
President Obama and political officials from the left and the right have spoken out against the mandatory minimums and harsh drug laws that contribute to the overcrowding of US jails and prisons with nonviolent offenders. Republican and Democrat law and order politicians constructed these laws in the 1980s and 1990s in order to demonstrate to a fearful electorate that they were tough on crime. Yet, it is well known that these laws target Black people, who are disproportionately arrested for and charged with nonviolent drug crimes. This is an obvious injustice and its irreversible effects on Black families and communities must be addressed.
Nonviolent drug offenders make up about 46% of the federal prison population, and (on average) only about 20% of state prison populations. Research by the Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight demonstrates that even if all nonviolent drug offenders in the United States were released from prison, the United States would still have the largest percentage of incarcerated people in the world. If true progress is to be made, it is necessary to address the societal conditions that produce violent crime and the fate of violent offenders.
US politics prioritizes easy access to guns, which are used in 70% of murders, 40% of robberies and 20% of aggravated assaults. Limiting access to the weapon of choice in most violent crimes committed may prevent the deaths, families hurt, and lives ruined by gun crime. As President Obama has said, few other public health issues go so brazenly unaddressed in our society. Gun restrictions that save lives must be more important than the preservation of cultural pastimes. Furthermore, the evidence that guns hurt scores of Americans far outweighs the claims that they prevent crime or help protect innocents in times of trouble.
Additionally, we as a society must ask ourselves: what is a just and a progressive punishment for those who commit horribly violent crimes? I contend that languishing in prison forever is an unproductive and unjust method of punishment. Good examples for innovative practices in our justice system could come from abroad. Germany and the Netherlands are two internationally acclaimed examples of justice systems where life sentences and capital punishment are extremely rare or simply do not exist. The overarching goals of these justice system is to “rehabilitate and resocialize” the formerly incarcerated by encouraging those that are imprisoned to maintain healthy relationships inside and outside of prison and using retributive practices as little as possible.
As Brian Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative noted in his speech “We Need to Talk About an Injustice,” it would be “unconscionable” for Germany, in particular with its history of systematic targeting of particular racial and ethnic minorities to employ punishments that are disproportionately distributed racially or ethnically, as they are in the US. Stevenson goes on to note that, since the United States has a similar history of disproportionately targeting African Americans for life sentences and capital punishments, it is similarly unconscionable for such punishments to continue to be administered here.
Making a case for an Reid, who murdered not one, but two, people and hurt two families is certainly a difficult task, and I make this argument with trepidation, for I cannot begin to comprehend the horror of losing one’s loved one to such a violent and senseless crime. Such callous crimes often evoke a callous response toward those who commit them. Yet, because human lives and black lives (in the case of Reid, particularly) matter, Americans must wrestle with better ways to employ retribution and rehabilitation in order to significantly reduce its prison population. Perhaps with guidance and rehabilitation, Reid’s life can be saved.
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