What needs to change in the American criminal justice system?
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). And she is currently at work on a new book: Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. Her academic research is inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges.
Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. Professor Harris-Lacewell's creative and dynamic teaching is also motivated by the practical political and racial issues of our time. For example, her course entitled Disaster, Race and American Politics explored the multiple political meanings of Hurricane Katrina. Professor Harris-Lacewell has taught students from grade school to graduate school and has been recognized for her commitment to the classroom as a site of democratic deliberation on race.
Question: What needs to change in the American criminal justice system?
Harris-Lacewell: I just think that the criminal line is drawn way too far. I mean my colleagues and friends who are in the Chicano movements in the Southwest often say, “Look, we didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us,” right? “We were here and then America came, so don’t call us immigrants.” Well a similar thing happened with crime, right? It’s not so much that we became more criminal. It’s that more things became criminal. So the . . . One way to think about it is that during Jim Crow, right, simply being Black in public space was criminal activity, right? So going to a movie theater and sitting in the downstairs instead of upstairs was a crime. Drinking out of the wrong water fountain was a crime. Sitting in the front of the bus was a crime. Now we look at those things now and think, “Well that’s ridiculous,” right? “These are clearly just patterns of people’s lives and behavior. These are things that we think of as freedom of choice, and the right to assemble, and so how could we have thought of them as criminal?” So the line of what constitutes crime is socially constructed. It can move back and forward, right? My parents’ relationship was a criminal relationship in the state of Virginia where I grew up three years before we came there. So I mean three years before we moved to Virginia, my parents’ relationship was, in fact, a criminal relationship. So what I know for certain is that we can change what constitutes crime. And that in doing so we don’t make a world that is more dangerous. I actually think we make a world that is more free. So we can say that we are as unconcerned with inner city high school kids smoking pot at the bus stop as we are about Princeton kids getting drunk to the point of killing brain cells every Thursday night. We can just simply say, “You know what? These are not activities that make us afraid. We are not afraid of young people. We are not afraid of the choices that they’re making.” That we don’t have to police every single activity to the point of incarceration; that we can have laws on the book that stamps sort of our social code about what matters, but that we do not have to police them at the same level. We don’t, in fact, have to kind of fill our jails with people who are doing petty property . . . excuse me, petty drug crime. Petty drug crime does not require the kind of massive incarceration that it’s currently getting. We can talk about property crime. We can talk about sort of physical crimes and rape; but those things, by the way, have all been in decline as we’ve grown our prison population in terms of petty drug crime. There is no war on drugs. There’s a war on sort of petty drug users. And I think we could . . . We could make a choice not to be in that war.
"I just think that the criminal line is drawn way too far."
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