Our Criminal Justice System: Time for Peer Review?

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







Interracial Dating “Revolution?”

According to a recent article, (link here), there is an “interracial dating revolution” going on and we owe it all the Olivia Pope, the character on the justifyingly-popular television program “Scandal,” about a brilliant, beautiful young black woman who advises political power-brokers on how to save their asses week after week.

The character of Olivia Pope is portrayed by Kerry Washington, who is at turns more intelligent and perceptive than anyone else on Planet Earth, and also beguiled by The President of the United States of America (portrayed by uber-connected Tony Goldwyn, the son of a major movie studio mogul).

The chemistry isn’t (in my opinion) sizzling hot, but it’s there, and for television, it’s believable enough and absolutely shocking to see a popular, well-written TV program featuring a black woman as the star who is not a stereotype – in fact, far from it.

The article says that the program itself is stirring an interracial dating revolution (which we hope is true). It goes on to say that (what a surprise) Star Jones (of all people) called the character of Olivia Pope “a whore,” who should be dating black men. Many other black women feel the same way: white men should leave them alone, do not and could not ever find them attractive, are “too different” or too culturally different, it’s just not right, on and on. Meanwhile black men with white woman has become such a part of American culture that we see it in magazines at every check out line (just open “Black Enterprise” or “Jet” to any page or look at the ads on TV on any given night). Interesting.

But the show’s popularity has done great positive things; such as increase the dialogue, garnered attention to the topic on a national scale, and increased the number of similar TV programming with “Deception” starring Meagan Good as a police detective under cover and the upcoming Angela Basset series.

It’s gotten to the point where “The Root” is comparing “Deception” to “Scandal,” and attempting to critically judge which television program portrays a more accurate (meaning agreeable to them) depiction of realistic race relations in America.

Of course, that’s a silly argument to make in the first place, comparing a fictional TV show to real life when most bipeds with a functional cerebral cortex have enough sense to know TV doesn’t accurately mirror reality.

And yet TV does influence reality. Look at what the success of “Scandal” has already done. It’s pissed people off, encouraged others, created TV copycat shows where none existed if its ilk before.

Neither “Scandal” nor “Deception” come close to portraying reality (at least not my reality), but they hit the bulls eye when it comes to inspiring and giving little black girls something new to see on the cathode tube mind-duller than big-mouth Star Jones preening for attention (while she provides nothing of substance) or the demeaning black characters (like “The Help”) typically seen on network TV fare. At least now little black girls, if they see Olivia Pope on TV at all, will see a woman who doesn’t back down, is incredibly resourceful, attractive, dating whomever she wants (as opposed to being steered by society into the acceptable norm of either being single or dating someone who is more socially acceptable), has a good job, dresses professionally, is articulate and literate, and (very) well-connected.

Hooray for some interracial dating on TV between black women and white men, but I’d say that the exposure of these two TV shows pales (pun intended) to the exposure of black men with white women in print and TV ads (which I would suggest vastly outnumbers the hours of these two shows airing).

Ultimately any interracial dating and diversity on national television is a positive change in perceptions, especially when said characters, however fictional, are not stereotypes. What’s your take?

English: Kerry Washington at Metropolitan Oper...

English: Kerry Washington at Metropolitan Opera’s 2010-11 Season Opening Night – “Das Rheingold” (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Yes, ma’am.

Tony Goldwyn in Denver in August 2008

Tony Goldwyn in Denver in August 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Tony Goldwyn looking startled.