My Turn, Le’Andre Blakeney: Take a second look at criminal justice system

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 6, 2021

By Le’Andre Blakeney

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahumad Aubrey. Michael Brown. Dominique Fells. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Elijah McClain. Andrew Brown.

Now say their names out loud.

Their lives mattered. Black Lives Matter. It’s not a proverbial phrase. It is the embodiment of blackness, and therefore, the manifestation of the diasporic resistance and struggle, and the struggles of Black people are global, however, for Black Americans, the Antebellum era, as well as the legacies of Jim/Jane Crow still have a profound impact on Black life. We are being attacked on all sides. One of the first forms of police officers were slave catchers, and it was their priority to quell any resistance from slaves and capture any runaways and bring them back to labor for free under horrific conditions. 

The coronavirus has not acted as a great equalizer in communities throughout the nation, but rather been a revealer of the already horrific disparities that exist between Black and white America and the lack of resources that we need in other institutions, particularly the amount of money we put in our criminal justice system in juxtaposition to our education system, a 21st-century economy, health care and our infrastructure. 

In May of last year, the unemployment rate amongst Black men was at 17.2%, and at 15.8% for Black women according to the Pew Research Center. The Department of Education reported that from 2000-2016 the nation had 16.3 million students enrolled in college. There were 9.1 million white students enrolled compared to 2.2 million Black students. Climate change has become a burgeoning topic in global discourse, so much so that it has been cited by experts as an existential threat. Yet, we spend billions of dollars annually to bolster a fragile and dysfunctional justice system and militarized police force. 

I’ve experienced and seen police operate as if they were looking to hurt people of color. I was driving into a parking structure where I saw approximately four officers surrounding a Black man giving him orders to get in the car. To be clear, they were berating him. One officer approached his car as if he was going to cause harm to him if he did not leave. When I saw this, my heart sank because I knew how this could end. So, in millennial fashion, I pulled out my cell phone and pressed record. Like the slave catchers of old — they were using terrorization wrapped in the cloak of “law and the order.”

The experiences Black people have with law enforcement are not new. We are told that we have false pretenses; and that we are disillusioned. This is a misnomer. The Department of Justice released data in 2016 showing that although Black Americans encounter the police at similar rates as whites, Black Americans are more likely to be threatened or experience the use of force. In the case of traffic stops, Black people are more likely to be searched even though data suggests that whites are more likely to possess illegal substances. Furthermore, Black Americans are convicted at higher rates due to “racial bias” amongst juries. This has dire consequences in cases involving the death penalty. We are also  convicted at higher rates due to bias from all-white juries. The Sentencing Project showed that Black and brown communities make up 37% of the U.S. population, but represent over 60% of the prison population. Black men are 35% of the prison population. In addition, one out of three Black men will be incarcerated in the United States. 

Phillip Cook, a Duke University professor conducted a study entitled “Potential Savings from Abolition of the Death Penalty in North Carolina.” It examined the costs of the death penalty in North Carolina in the 2005- 2006 fiscal year. Executions have halted since and serve mostly as a placeholder for life without parole. The study suggested that the state could have saved approximately $11,000,000 by not having the death penalty in the state, which could allow those resources to be concentrated to other cases, fund our public schools, or strengthening our healthcare system, or our economy.

However, New Jersey, New York, California, Alaska, Connecticut, and Vermont are leading the charge in “decarceration.” They have implemented reforms that have led to over a 20% reduction in their own state’s prison population. However, it will take a national effort at a rapid pace to uproot the centuries of racist sentencing that has led to mass incarceration. N.C. has not done enough to curb the carceral system as a state. 

Governments approve budgets that entail tens of millions of dollars to fund militarized police departments and poorly run jails. If budgets reflect values, we have consistently devalued justice and equality while simultaneously funding systematic oppression, and this is why we need to take a second look at our criminal justice system and ask ourselves what are doing to fund Black futures.

Le’Andre Blakeney earned a master’s degree in Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He’s a native of East Spencer.