Our Criminal Justice System: Time for Peer Review?

One of the main reasons I got married was for peer review.


Granted, peer review wasn’t the only reason I got married…but the thing is, for an academic nerd, who lives principally in her own head, one of the best things about living with someone else is the opportunity to bounce those wild ideas you may have at four in the morning against the touchtone of your significant other’s critical intellect.


After all, just about everything sounds good the first time you say it to yourself.


I count on my husband to offer a fresh perspective—that’s one of the best things about living with someone who grew up in a different part of the world.

So I had a peer review moment a few days ago, as I grumbled to my husband about the work Tony Goldwyn (President “Ghost” as the fans like to call him in Shonda Rhimes’s delightful series Scandal), has been doing with The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned.  Goldwyn’s 2010 film, Conviction,  raised awareness concerning this problem while highlighting the actor’s additional talents as a director.


US correctional population timeline-zh-hans

US correctional population timeline-zh-hans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My issue was not with the Innocence Project’s mission to exonerate the falsely accused—particularly given the recurring evidence that Americans—particularly men—of color live under presumptions of guilt that can ruin lives.  (Note, for example, a recent Washington Post editorial, detailed on the Innocence Project Blog).


But in a country where over 1.5 million adults were incarcerated in 2011, according to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics—where 1 in every 34 Americans is under the supervision of the Criminal Justice system–and this number, which represents a decline from higher levels of incarceration in 2000, is still the highest number of incarcerated in the industrialized world –and where black and Hispanic males make up a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated,  why does our discussion always have to be about “innocence” and guilt?  If the laws against a variety of crimes–particularly drug use–are selectively applied, shouldn’t we really be focused on inequitable enforcement?  On mitigating the handicaps of those who are incarcerated–increasing their access to civil rights, education, and job training?


English: Timeline of yearly U.S criminal justi...

English: Timeline of yearly U.S criminal justice spending. 1982-2006. By function (police, corrections, judicial). Not inflation adjusted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As someone who has been teaching at a community college for over a decade, and working, on the side, on prison education issues for the last two, I’m constantly struck by the way inequality of opportunity paves the school to prison pipeline that ends in tragedy for so many young people of color in the United States.  Rather than asking whether-they-did-or-didn’t, shouldn’t we be supporting access for incarcerated men and women to financial aid for education that can transform lives and has been shown, statistically, to lower recidivism rates by approximately one-third?


If rehabilitation, rather than punition, really is our goal, educating the incarcerated would represent a solid way to put our money in front of our mouths–and help everyone in prison, not just the ones we discover are “innocent.”

My husband  listened patiently (he usually does) but then pointed out that in the age of what Michelle Alexander  has termed  The New Jim Crow  no one organization can take on every issue.   Triage is needed; priorities have to be set.  And first, surely, must come assistance for those who have been victimized by racism even while playing by the rules.
I was still mulling over my husband’s take when we turned on the television and found ourselves watching the PBS/New York Times interview that followed the screening of the Ken Burn’s new film (made with daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon) The Central Park Five.  The testimonials of these eloquent, traumatized young men, each of whom served seven years for a crime they never committed, highlights the importance of establishing innocence, and the human cost of failing to do so.

“You’re right,” I told my husband, rather shamefacedly.  “Establishing innocence–or guilt beyond a reasonable doubt–has to come first.”

My husband and I are still debating this, however, because another film that was recently screened in my home town of New York City—Released, directed by David Rothenberg —profiled the work the Fortune Society has been doing at a Bronx residence for the formerly incarcerated known as “the Castle” —helping re-entering men and women repair breaches with loved ones, find meaningful employment, and empower themselves through education.  Two of individuals profiled in the film are enrolled as students on campuses of the City University of New York.


The testimonials of the men and women profiled in Released  has reaffirmed my conviction that peer review isn’t just for married folks—a full and critical conversation, where all voices are heard, and all points are considered, is the bedrock value of our civil society.  And in that debate, education remains the most forceful instrument for rectifying the gap between those who are heard and those whose voices are throttled.  We can prioritize the simple justice of incarcerating only those whose guilt has been proven; but we need to widen access to education to all those accused—regardless of race, class, or gender—so all of us can contribute to a process of peer review that can improve our criminal justice system and build a better society for our children.


Emily Sohmer Tai