Fair and Equal
An OZY series examining how to fix the skewed scales of American justice.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because reforming the justice system is not a simple task.
America incarcerates more people per capita than anyone in the world by a healthy margin. That justice is meted out unequally by ZIP code, age, gender, disability, mental health status — and race.
Leaders across the political spectrum are rethinking the justice system, but old habits are hard to break, and federal reform efforts like the First Step Act only scratch the surface, when states do the bulk of the locking up. And each headline-grabbing police shooting comes with a politically charged debate attached and often serves to illuminate the lack of trust many hold in the application of justice.
This OZY original series explores the innovators who are tackling these big problems, as well as the lesser-known inequities of the system.
One in every five young adults with autism is stopped and questioned by police, and one in every 20 is arrested. Now, police departments, state governments, universities, hospitals and researchers are beginning to come together to break that cycle and improve relations between the autistic community and police. The efforts span from Texas — where autistic adults can put a special tag on their license plate — to New York state to Florida.
Reports abound of sexual abuse, solitary confinement, racist language and violence. There have been allegations of abuse against residential treatment facilities for teens — often known as boot camps — in 28 of the 30 states that have them, and despite attempts to regulate the industry, it’s still growing: The number of these centers has grown 23 percent since 2017.
It was after the fifth inmate died at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center when Judge Michael Nelson finally decided to break his silence. Given that the jail was massively overcapacity and detainees were kept in appalling conditions, Nelson, 70, became the first judge in the Cleveland area to simply stop setting high bonds for nonviolent defendants who, unable to pay the $500 or so, would otherwise spend days, weeks or months sitting among convicted inmates.
It’s not difficult to imagine a more equitable prison population, one that treats accused criminals the same regardless of race. But if you were to picture it, you likely wouldn’t picture the Deep South being the poster child. Yet maybe you should be, according to a study released by The Sentencing Project this summer. Of the five states with the lowest racial disparities in their prison populations, four of them — Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama — are in the South.
Cities in Texas are charting a new course for how law enforcement polices teenagers. And, what’s happening in Texas seems to be reverberating elsewhere and influencing change — slowly. Crime reduction and keeping teens safe are commonly cited as the primary reasons for instituting curfews, but research shows the negative impact of ordinances that keep people under the age of 17 off the streets at night: an uptick of nonjuvenile criminal activity, criminalization of teenagers and exacerbating an already tenuous relationship between youth and police.
Thirty-two years ago, Sharon Dietrich was sitting at one of her first work events at her new job at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS), when a man approached her. Like about 70 million Americans, he had a criminal record and it was hindering his efforts to find a job. “Even though we haven’t been seeing those cases,” she thought, “I bet this happens to a lot of people.” Sure enough, after studying CLS’ intake of new employment law clients, she found that 68 percent wanted to seal their criminal records and studies have shown about one in three U.S. adults has a criminal record. Decades after her first encounter with that man seeking a job, she would develop a proposal for the automatic sealing of criminal records — now signed into law in Pennsylvania and spreading nationwide.
The No. 1 reason people in the United States call the police is due to domestic violence. Depending on the region, this type of abuse makes up 15 to 50 percent of 911 calls on top of the estimated 20,000 calls per day to domestic violence hotlines. Even that figure vastly is too low, as a fraction of these crimes is ever reported. But there’s a fix: The more female officers there are on a police force, the more domestic violence reporting goes up.