Washington D.C: When Kanye West met with Donald Trump, it was under the pretense of talking about criminal justice reform. Throughout the surreal sprawling encounter, it wasn’t among the topics discussed, as one would expect. It’s no coincidence that Trump sought this pseudo-advice from Kanye, a black man, simply for the optics of it.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s Attorney General, Jess Sessions, is pushing an agenda that reverses modern reforms and his judicial appointments demonstrate right wing ideologies and that ideology will be stamped into precedent for decades to come. This matters especially on the circuit court level, on which Trump has nominated far more judges than any other president, because the circuit court decides many of the cases that don’t make it to the Supreme Court. Outside the spectacle of the White House, the Trump administration has taken us backwards on criminal justice reform, which is ultimately detrimental to all Americans, the world, and the value of justice.
The United States has a justice system that’s anything but just because it’s a key part of institutionalized racism. Police brutality and aggression continue to disproportionately affect men of color, and our prisons are flooded with men (and women) of color in ratios that do not reflect criminal activity. Take drug use for instance: about the same percent of white and black Americans use marijuana recreationally, but black men are much more likely to be incarcerated for it. Seem fair? Didn’t think so.
Part of why our prisons are over-filled, costing tax payers billions annually and enriching the owners of private prisons, is because of mandatory minimum sentences. They’re just what they sound like, the minimum amount of punishment perpetrators of crimes must serve. While that might sound fair, that means a first-time drug offender couldn’t be treated with leniency or given an alternative sentence like community service or even community college. The Trump administration brought back the practice of mandatory minimums in a series of policies that look a lot like the failed “war on drugs” which didn’t stop drug use but did cripple many black communities. Ask Sessions or Trump, these policies are meant to stop criminals like members of the MS-13 gang, but what we’re seeing is a spike in prosecuting small-time drug crime. And those private prisons? They’re sitting pretty since the Trump administration walked back an Obama-administration plan to erase the federal government’s reliance on them.
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The theory behind aggressively going after small crimes is called “broken windows” policing. This suggests that by cleaning up visible signs of disorder like graffiti, broken windows, or even loitering, you can curb much more serious crimes. Rudy Giuliani, now Trump’s TV lawyer, was once the mayor of New York City during an era of high crime. As reported in the excellent two-part series from the podcast Reply All, his ascension to mayor in 1993 was well timed to the creation of CompStat, a tool that was meant to help police combat all crimes, not just big ones, and punish those who weren’t taking their jobs seriously.
The problem was that it became warped into the racial profiling nightmare we see today because rather than address the problem, police chiefs played a numbers game. They learned that if they made a lot of arrests of people that met the description of possible perpetrators of other crimes, even for unrelated issues, they could claim that the issue is taken care of. They learned that to show police activity, they could pressure officers to meet quotas of arrests, which is illegal. They learned that if you don’t report a crime, it doesn’t go in the crime statistics for your neighborhood or block. This is great for politics and public opinion but bad for society. Jack Maple, the creator of CompStat, fought with the new mayor. Giuliani believed that less crime means more arrests; that’s not how statistics work. If fewer people are committing crimes, there will necessarily be fewer people to arrest – unless you come up with new reasons to keep arresting them. Broken windows turned into stop and frisk and created a perfect environment for racially biased police brutality. By going after petty crimes like selling loose cigarettes, you put police in the position to kill innocent people like what happened to Eric Garner.
We’ve made blackness (and to a lesser degree poverty in general), criminal. This has so many far-reaching implications that I can’t get into all of them in a single post, but it’s worth bringing up to clarify Kanye’s 13th amendment confusion. Having a criminal record in America makes everything harder. You can’t vote in many states, and good luck trying to get a job.
In the excellent book The New Jim Crow and the Netflix documentary 13th, the surprisingly widespread use of prison labor is discussed in the context of the 13th amendment. In the amendment, forced labor is made unconstitutional except in the cases of punishment for a crime. So yes, this article does have implications in the ethical fashion world, because many companies who proudly say they’re made in the US rely on prison laborers being paid pennies an hour. It’s a horrifying system, from petty crimes to prison, to forced labor, to a criminal record, to hardship, to stop and frisk or profiling, to prison again. That’s the system we need to break, not any kind of “slave mentality,” but the use of modern slavery and the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters by conservatives.
This is important in the context of ethics because it would be hypocritical to advocate for improved labor conditions and lives for those overseas without also addressing heinous acts at home or in the West. Yes, even if you’re born a poor black woman in America, you’re probably still better off than a garment worker in Indonesia, but misery isn’t a competition. Both racism and exploitation need to be stopped. As activists, it’s our job to understand the context of the world around us and identify how we can help, where our passions intersect, and what our duties are as neighbors, citizens, and humans. While I have no confidence that Kanye or Trump have the answer to such a complex question, it remains one of the essential questions facing the U.S. in the coming years.