How Kim Kardashian West could better address the criminal justice system
In early May, Kim Kardashian West made headlines for her attempts to ask White House officials to advocate for a presidential pardon for 62-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender serving a life sentence. While Kardashian West has largely been praised for her advocacy, and while Alice Marie Johnson’s case is certainly worthy of attention, the publicity that has surrounded her advocacy generally overlooks the much bigger, fundamental problems of racism and prosecutorial discretion within the criminal justice system.
Alice Marie Johnson is just one person among many who has suffered because of the United States’ racist criminal justice system. According to Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” “No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” To illustrate the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, consider that while black and white people use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times as high as whites. Black children have a parent in jail or prison at a rate about twice as high as that for white children, and mass incarceration is a significant contributor to racial gaps in academic performance between black and white students.
Incarcerated women could particularly benefit from criminal justice reform, though, as they have become the fastest-growing segment of the United States’ incarcerated population. Although overall incarceration rates have declined in the U.S. since their peak in 2007, the total number of men incarcerated in state prisons nationwide fell more than 5 percent between 2009 and 2015, while the number of women in state prisons fell by less than 0.33 percent. What’s more, women tend to enter prison and jail in more vulnerable situations than men: Women entering prison, who are disproportionately black and Latina, are more likely to be using drugs, and more likely to be receiving public assistance or to be unemployed, than incarcerated men. Nearly 80 percent of these women are mothers (nearly half mothers of minors) and many are the sole caregiver for their children. When mothers are incarcerated, their children are often displaced; they are more likely to be in state foster care or living with a relative without the resources to visit the child’s mother. In fact, incarcerated women receive far fewer visits from their children than incarcerated fathers do, because fathers’ children are generally brought to see them by their mothers.
Although the president of the United States wields the power to pardon individuals who have committed federal crimes on a case-by-case basis, it is American prosecutors, not the president, who hold the most significant amount of power on local and federal levels. The American criminal justice system grants a disproportionate amount of power to prosecutorial discretion: Prosecutors can not only incarcerate people, but also determine the details of their charges and sentences, which can effectively allow for racial bias. According to data from John Pfaff, author of “Locked In,” the rate at which prosecutors filed felony charges between 1994 and 2008 increased while arrests, prosecutions, admissions, and time served did not change significantly or even decreased. Since the state bears the sole responsibility for financing prisons, prosecutors, free from any financial costs themselves, can lock people away for many years or even life, as Johnson was, reaping the political benefits of a tough-on-crime stance without financial accountability.
To be fair, not all prosecutors are contributing to this phenomenon. Many district attorneys across the nation have begun to implement policies to reduce mass incarceration. But, overall, Kardashian’s appeal to Trump to pardon Johnson oversimplifies the complex system of racist and sexist oppression within the American criminal justice system. While pardoning Johnson would be a symbolic victory in the fight against racialized incarceration, and certainly make a huge and worthy difference in Johnson’s life, it would do little to address the way unchecked prosecutorial discretion allows racist sentiments to permeate courts and shape the incarcerated population of the United States.
Instead of focusing on President Trump’s power to potentially pardon Johnson, therefore, Kardashian West’s time would be better served focusing on the United States’ top prosecutor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions has immense power to determine federal prison sentences, and he already has: Sessions has taken steps to maximize prison sentences for anyone charged with a drug crime. Calling for increased transparency in prosecutorial discretion, starting with Sessions and leading to a call for our nation to collect data on all prosecutors, would foster more democratic decisions in the criminal justice system — which, at the end of the day, is what we really need.
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