A few updates to the story out of Baltimore are in order. I have them below. But I still believe the focus should remain on the larger issues at hand - something I've said repeatedly and will continue to.
There have been documented, systemic problems throughout the country that need to be addressed and why reform is so necessary. That's why I have not jumped on the bandwagon of calling the rioters 'thugs' and have tried to remind black people that it makes little sense to paint police officers with a broad brush when we don't want that down to young black people.
For a reminder about some of those issues, go back to this post.
Never miss a local story.
In the Freddie Gray case, there remains a mystery about how he got a severed spine and crushed voice box - at least according to the reports released so far - in custody. I haven't dealt much with the speculation that has been rampant, but a few updates should be noted:
Some have asked about Gray supposedly having had previous spinal problems and surgeries from a car accident.
The Baltimore Sun looked into those claims and said they were false.
The Washington Post last night released a story about what the other prisoner in the van allegedly told police, that he heard Gray purposefully thrashing around trying to hurt himself.
But that prisoner couldn't see Gray, and he didn't get into the van until late into the ride, long after Gray had been asking for medical attention.
Then you have CNN's interview with a family member of one of the officers involved. She said that officer believes Gray was injured during his arrest, long before he got into the van.
On top of that, police officials a few days ago said it was inexcusable that Gray was not given medical attention at the scene of the arrest because he needed it there.
And the big question is why was he even arrested. We still don't know.
Related: 5 facts about Freddie Gray arrest
In other words, all we know is that Gray didn't have a severed spine and crushed voice box before all of this occurred but is now dead from those injuries.
But the issue is bigger in Baltimore than Gray just as it was bigger than Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York or Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
A large part of this has to do with the evolution of the criminal justice system itself and a prison population that has exploded since the 1980s and ‘90s. And a question that has come up several times has essentially been about who is to blame, and usually the tone of the question suggests that it is the result of purposeful scheme but white conservatives.
But the facts don’t back up those claims, at least not for the modern-day prison system.
It is true that after slavery, the prison system was largely designed to harass and unfairly imprison black people, especially black men. A for a long time during the 20th century, the prison system was used as a de facto form of slavery. Hundreds of thousands of black men were rounded up on trumped up charges - like spitting on the street - taken into custody, found guilty and fined, and often sold off to U.S. manufacturing companies to “work off their debt.”
That work included backbreaking labor and beatings - sometimes to death. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Douglas A. Blackmon, detailed that entire history - which was going on here while the Holocaust was going on in Germany - in his best-seller “Slavery by Another Name.”
Also, for a long time in the 20th century, police departments and judges, particularly in the South, were full of Ku Klux Klan members, or those who sympathized with them. Given that history, it makes sense that black people are skeptical of the justice system.
But in more recent decades, when the prison population exploded, something else was at play. It was a joint, bipartisan, interracial effort.
The drug war was not something cooked up by “the right.” Michelle Alexander’s widely-discussed “The New Jim Crow” does a great job documenting the rise of the prison population. But one sound criticism of the book, or at least its title, is that it suggests it was the product of white conservatives. It wasn’t.
The Congressional Black Caucus and other such groups also helped push it, largely because many officials and elected leaders bought into the claims about “crack babies” and “super predators,” both of which we now know were hyped, that the reality did not match the rhetoric.
A bipartisan, interracial effort got us into this mess, and that’s what it will take to make sure sensible reform is enacted.
More on the background of the well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system:
Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?
That’s the thesis of a new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. It has begun to attract reviews and debate from across the political spectrum. Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa seeks to upend assumptions about the politics of crime and punishment. She argues that conservatives, playing the politics of racial animus, helped quadruple the incarceration rate, but they were not alone. Rather, she points to “liberal law and order” ideas first expressed by Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the NAACP. These liberals believed that federalizing crime policy would “professionalize” the justice system and prevent racial bias. But in fact, federal funding and federal oversight of courts, sentencing, and policing helped build what Murakawa calls a “carceral state” that disproportionately punishes people of color.
Here is a sign that this issue is getting the attention and traction it needs:
Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office sent out this message yesterday:
Graham Backs National Criminal Justice Commission
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has cosponsored the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015, bipartisan legislation that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission to review the criminal justice system from top to bottom and propose reforms to address serious issues facing our nation’s criminal justice system.
The legislation would establish a 14-member, bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission charged with completing an 18-month, comprehensive review of the national criminal justice system, including federal, state, local, and tribal criminal justice systems, and with issuing recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices and laws to reduce crime, increase public safety, and promote confidence in the criminal justice system. The Commission would be made up of Presidential and Congressional appointees, including experts on law enforcement, criminal justice, victims’ rights, civil liberties, and social services.
“This is a long overdue measure,” said Graham, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee. “The men and women representing law enforcement understand the need for this legislation, and I appreciate them pushing Congress to move forward on this important issue. I think the nation will be better off with this essential top-to-bottom review of the most pressing issues facing our nation’s criminal justice system.”
Recent incidents and civil unrest have highlighted the need for a top-to-bottom evaluation of our criminal justice system. The transparent and bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission would provide a better understanding of community relationships with law enforcement and the administration of justice through our court system, and identify effective policies to address a broad range of issues in the criminal justice system including crime reduction, incarceration, and prisoner reentry.
The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015 is supported by a broad coalition of criminal justice organizations, including law enforcement, crime victims, and criminal justice reform advocates.
Endorsements for the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015 include:
Jonathan F. Thompson, Executive Director and CEO of the National Sheriffs’ Association said:
“The National Sheriffs’ Association applauds Senators Peters, Graham and Cornyn for introducing this bill to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission. We believe it is in the best interest of the nation to have a transparent system going forward.”
Fraternal Order of Police National President Chuck Canterbury said:
“The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that Congress establish a national commission of law enforcement and other experts to review and examine all facets of our nation's criminal justice systems to improve our national justice system. The FOP agrees and we support legislation introduced by Senators Peters, Graham and Cornyn that would establish such a commission. The commission will undertake a comprehensive analysis of the administration of justice in our nation today and make recommendations which have the unanimous support of the commission. The goal here is to improve not only policing in the U.S., but our nation's criminal justice system as a whole.”
Association of Prosecuting Attorneys President and CEO David LaBahn said:
“The Association of Prosecuting Attorneys - the only national prosecutors association to represent and support prosecutors and their deputies at the local, county, state and federal level - strongly supports the introduction of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. It has been 50 years since there was a holistic review of the national criminal system and this effort is long overdue. We applaud Senators Peters, Graham and Cornyn for the introduction of this crucial legislation.”
Chief Richard Beary, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) said:
“I commend Senators Peters, Cornyn, and Graham for introducing this important legislation. For over 20 years, the IACP has called for the creation of a National Commission on Criminal Justice to develop across-the-board improvements to the criminal justice system, in order to address current challenges and to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire criminal justice community. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015 will do just that. It is imperative that we explore all aspects of the criminal justice system and determine what needs to be revamped and develop a strong set of recommendation to address the broad range of new and emerging challenges that confront law enforcement today.”