‘Fixing The System’ – 5 Things America Learned About The Broken Criminal Justice System


Yesterday, September 28, 2015, Vice Special Report: Fixing The System aired on HBO. The documentary was seen as historic – President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. The following points are the most important lessons learned from the documentary:

1. Our criminal justice system is creating broken families.  The phenomenon of broken families is often discussed in American social and cultural conversations as root causes for many problems, including the creation of crime. Ironically, it is clear that broken families are the result of the over-incarceration of many, including 1.1 million fathers of the 2.2 million people in prison currently, according to the documentary.

Too often the public sees the criminal, not the son, brother, father, mother, sister, etc. And it is a burden the entire family and community bears.

2. The war on drugs has been a total and complete failure. The rhetoric of the war on drugs has always been problematic because it seemed to burden the sole individual with a plethora of non-individual conditions that may have led to specific choices. Everyone from (ex) police officers (Ex: Michael A. Wood Jr.), to former president Bill Clinton has admitted that the drug war has not only not achieved its goal of crime reduction, it has increased it. And the politics of institutions has made the prison system a nightmare. Prisons have increased over 700% since 1970 and much of that is nonviolent drug-related crime.

It is worth keeping in mind too, that violent crime during the same period has gone down, as pointed out by President Obama in the documentary.

3. Communities of Color which are the most economically vulnerable, continue to bear the brunt of unfair laws. It’s no secret to most People of Color and everyone paying attention really, who suffers most in America’s criminal justice system. The extent of this suffering is often not realized by many. For example, 1 in 3 Black men is expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime; compare that to 1 in 17 White men. The vicious cycle of treating People of Color with harsher interactions and then arrests and then charges and then longer sentences, is also discussed.

The consequence of community uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore and throughout the country becomes the consequence in a continuously unjust system.

4. Systems within systems are broken. Aside from the creation of laws that were aiming to be tough on crime, which incidentally led to more crime, systems in place to deal with the process are also broken. One striking discussion in the documentary is that of plea bargains. There is apparently a guilty plea rate of 97% in the system. This means that regardless of guilt or innocence, many of the accused take plea bargains rather than fight the system. This is because prosecutors often make the possible alternative sentence absurdly harsher.

Consider then that many nonviolent crimes require unnecessarily long minimum sentences too – in some cases ten years to life in prison. And in comparison to other crimes, the sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes end up making little sense.

5. The “correction” and “rehabilitation” aspect of the prison system leaves much to be desired. In the documentary, one point Obama really hones in on, is life after prison. And from the narrative in the documentary, it is clear that the vicious cycle of the criminal justice system is complete once people actually leave the system. They often have a difficult time finding jobs, being reintroduced into society, etc., and sure enough as Obama points out, over 50% end up returning to prison.

It is one of many cycles within the cycle that is not working. Many employers are not willing to give ex-convicts a chance and that is what many, including the president, are trying to change.

In the end what I got from the documentary is this: Do we want more “criminals” in the system who are locked up for lengths of time that don’t really make sense? Or do we want more fathers at home with their kids? Although not discussed in the documentary, it has become known that corporations make money from prisons. Is that what we want? Or do we want drug laws and sentencing laws and laws in general that are aware of the social science of economics and history and crime? Because right now our criminal justice laws are not only inconsistent with social science, they lack justice, empathy, and the recognition of the humanity of so many people caught in the system.