Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wrongful Convictions & Poverty

I wish I had $50 for every time someone tried to brush away issues related to poor, predominately black communities, by pointing out the high rate of incarceration of black people. The person, almost invariably white, implies subtly - and sometimes not so subtly - that there is a genetic character flaw in black people that renders them predisposed to criminal behavior. If this were true, then, of course, we could limit or totally eliminate the talk of socioeconomic reasons related to concentrated, generational poverty and, most importantly, we wouldn't have to talk so much about racism. In other words, 'it's all their fault'.

Now, not only have I grown weary of deconstructing this argument, I realize that some people at their most honest, really don't get it. There is a reason the criminal justice system is viewed more suspiciously by minority communities than by white communities. But most importantly, the over representation of blacks in the criminal justice system is one of the phenomenons that keep poor neighborhoods poor.

Have you ever thought about lifetime stigma now placed on those who have 'paid their debt to society'? Nicole Hannah-Jones accurately points out how our attitudes towards the formerly incarcerated exacerbate issues in economically challenged communities...

"...If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African-American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent.) These men are part of a growing undercaste--not class, caste--permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era."

Those are the challenges of the formerly incarcerated. Think of the additional consequences of being wrongfully incarcerated!

This is why CitySquare, public policy department is looking at the criminal justice system and wrongful incarceration. On August 25, in a special Urban Engagement Book Club we will be reviewing the book 'Tested: How Twelve Wrongfully Imprisoned Men Held on to Hope'.

These men (there are actually more than 20 of them from Dallas County), wrongfully incarcerated - many for more than 20 years - and released with the most minimal services to help reintegrate them into society are believed to be only the tip of the iceberg of a problem that has seen more than 200 men nationwide set free because they were innocent.

Randy Mayeaux, who reviews the books for UEBC writes this on his blog, "I have just finished reading each and every word of the book Tested:  How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope by Peyton Budd in collaboration with Dorothy Budd — Photographs by Deborah Luster.  (Published by Brown Books Publishing Group in Dallas).  I say it this way to make a point – though I thoroughly read the books that I present, at times I have to move through the text pretty fast.  This one was one to read slowly – and I did.

"It chronicles the stories of some men who sat in prison, some for decades, while innocent of the crimes they were sent to prison for.  They were wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully imprisoned.  There is now no doubt of the wrongfulness of their convictions.  They have been exonerated.  The courts admit the wrongful convictions.  They are now free.
"But, of course, they will never be free.  As exoneree Eugene Hinton put it:  “There are no psychiatrists who’ve done twenty years in prison for a crime they did not commit, so they really couldn’t offer me a solution.” 

"I frequently share insight on this blog from books I have read.  Occasionally, I strongly suggest that you read the book yourself.  I do so with this book.  It will make you sad, yet hopeful, all at the same 
time.  It will do your heart good.  It did mine."

Do yourself a favor and come share with us on Thursday, August 25, from 12 noon to 1:15 P.M. We will meet at CitySquare's headquarters at 511 Akard.  Find out just one more reason why minority communities 
are further impoverished by inequities in the criminal justice system. 

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