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Jim Crow and criminal justice

The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (Latin for “great charter”), the English document written by a group of rebellious English barons who rose up against the absolute rule and power of King John in 1215 England. This document guaranteed a list of basic rights to which these barons, the aristocracy and other “free people” would be protected against the dictatorial whims and arbitrary rule of the king.

The Magna Carta is considered to be the foundation of Western democracy enshrined in laws that guarantee civil liberties. It was used by the framers of the American Declaration of Independence and has served as the basis of the Bill of Rights that has governed our nation for 239 years. Our country is considered by many Americans to be the citadel of global democracy wherein just laws govern the affairs of citizens.

But those Americans of African descent and who are poor have experienced few just laws and have yet to experience real democratic rule. When it comes to the criminal justice system, this is most acute.

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it,” Michelle Alexander writes in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.” “It is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt.”

Those who are black and brown are more likely to remain in the grasp of the criminal justice system for an indefinite period of time than be re-integrated into society. The label of being a criminal or ex-convict is a more efficient means of serving the same purpose as the system of Jim Crow and a more effective means of obstructing and denying basic civil liberties to people of color.

In 1980 the criminal justice system warehoused some 500,000 inmates with over 40 percent being people of color. Today that number has quadrupled. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2014 over 2.2 million inmates were in jail or prison with another 4.5 million on probation, parole or court -supervised surveillance. In total nearly 7 million Americans are trapped in the criminal justice system, and over 60 percent are people of color.

Although African Americans constitute only 13 percent of the American population, they are over represented in the criminal justice system by more than 40 percent. Nearly 1 in 12 black men ages 25 to 54 are in prison. Blacks are jailed nearly 12 times the rate of whites. One of every three black males age 20-29 is under the control and supervision of the criminal justice system.

Those labeled felons are not accorded many democratic rights. Once released from confinement, many find themselves just as confined on the outside as they were while in prison. Their criminal record impacts their ability to be successful when seeking employment, public assistance, decent housing, educational scholarships and licensures to conduct routine businesses. Many are unable to get a bank loan.

Most significantly, they are barred from voting – the foundation of democracy and the guarantor of societal rights.

All of these inequities and barriers adversely impact their ability to maintain a relationship, raise a child, be good parents, become a spouse or even maintain good physical and mental health.

Their limited life choices confine many of them to broken homes in dilapidated neighborhoods. Many are forced to stay confined to the underground economy. Their restricted social environments and poor prospects for work are a major factor for them re-engaging in a lifestyle of crime, such as selling drugs, committing armed robberies and invading homes.

Many individuals in the African-American community and justice-loving people view the criminal justice system with jaded suspicion. And since there is a national conversation on racism, the police and injustice, we must extend this conversation to the criminal justice system, which has been brutal, broken, unjust and undemocratic toward its black, Latino and poor populations.

Malik Ahmed is the CEO of Better Family Life, Inc.