Manager of State Initiatives
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Greg Glod | September 29, 2015
On Sunday night, Vice aired a special on criminal justice reform, which they had dubbed “historic.”
The 68 minute documentary was informative, giving a 30,000 foot overview of the criminal justice system. But, if its aim was to move the policy needle in the direction of reform, it fell flat, recycling the same tired criminal justice rhetoric the left has been peddling since reform became a hot-button issue in the past few years.
“Fixing the System” highlights President Obama’s recent trip to El Reno federal prison. During his trip, Obama sat down with a few inmates to hear their stories; each highlighting some of the major issues that plague our federal system today; such as mandatory minimums and reentry outcomes.
However, the overarching theme of the piece was the issue of racial bias in policing and prosecution. Throughout their documentary, Vice pushed the argument that the criminal justice system is racist, with each segment routinely going back to this notion. At one point, Vice’s co-founder, CEO, and executive producer of the piece, Shane Smith, directly asks President Obama during their one-on-one interview whether the system is racist.
President Obama chose his words carefully to not mimic Smith’s words that the system is racist, but does state that the criminal justice system disparately impacts minority groups:
“I think the criminal justice system interacts with broader patterns of society in a way that results in injustice and unfairness. The system, every study has shown, is biased somewhere, institutionally, in such a way where an African-American youth is more likely to be suspended from school than a white youth for engaging in the same disruptive behavior, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be prosecuted aggressively, more likely to get a stiffer sentence.
“The system tilts in a direction that is unjust, and particularly when you think about nonviolent drug offenses. This is an area where the statistics are so skewed, you have to question, whether we have become numb to the costs that it has on these communities. Whether we think it’s somehow normal for black youth or Latino youth to be going through the system in this way.
“It’s not normal and it has to be addressed from soup to nuts in order for us to get some better outcomes.”
While there are legitimate concerns about how race influences our criminal justice system, the focus of reform should rest in proven, data-driven models that have a track-record of success on the state level. These state-based reforms have garnered wide, bipartisan support with good reason–they work.
To their credit, the documentary makers did present many of the most glaring inadequacies and failures of the system. Two particularly stood out. First, the use of “ghost dope” by federal prosecutors in order to achieve a high rate of guilty pleas for drug offenses (currently standing at 97%) is an issue that has been rarely delved into.
In a nutshell, prosecutors will cut deals with certain defendants to “rat out” other individuals suspected of being involved in a conspiracy for a certain quantity of drugs without law enforcement actually ever obtaining the drugs in question. The informant gets a deal and the accused defendant is all but forced to plead guilty to a lesser sentence with the threat of a much tougher sentence due to the alleged quantities of “ghost dope” on the table. However, like most of the documentary, no solutions to fix this issue are presented and we are just left with the problem.
Second, the program documented the breakdown of the American family due in part to these policies. An estimated 1.1 million fathers are in prison, many of which themselves had a father who was locked up and now have sons and daughters who are going through the criminal justice system. This portion, albeit brief and overshadowed by the issue of race, showed the damaging effects that imprisoning fathers and mothers for extended periods of time have on families.
By being invited to accompany President Obama to his visit to El Reno Federal Prison, Vice was given a tremendous opportunity to create a very unique and historic piece on criminal justice reform that could have promoted effective change. The opportunity was missed.
The current state of our criminal justice system is the result of several decades of policy decisions supported by liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and, let the record state, substantial numbers of African-American elected officials, pastors, business owners, and community activists.
The system isn’t working for far too many people and communities. Reforming it will take a sustained effort and a disciplined reliance on data to improve public safety by doing what works, including, wherever possible, diverting offenders from prison and effectively rehabilitating those who will be released from prison.
The build-up by Vice fell flat. There is a broad national consensus that the criminal justice system is in need of reform. We didn’t need another piece telling us that with the same decades-old oratory. With federal reform now on the horizon, real solutions ought to be discussed.