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Expert Voices

Justice is One Word for It: A Reflection of the Trauma Inflicted by the U.S. Criminal Legal System

Published February 18, 2022
A wire fence with several American flags waving behind it.

By Ta’Mara Hill, CVT policy officer

Today, Kim Potter was sentenced to two years in prison for the crimes of first- and second-degree manslaughter, after she fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in April of 2021. This sentencing has led many of us to reflect on harsh disparities in court-ordered punishments between races and gender. While this sentencing is shocking for some (and unsurprising for others), it is the sentencing of just the third officer ever convicted of a civilian death in Minnesota’s history, which is a milestone in the movement towards justice, accountability and liberation – a movement that, for Minnesotans, began long before the egregious torture and murder of George Floyd.

At CVT, we hope that imprisonment provides rehabilitation, while being aware that Daunte’s life was stolen from him; aware that the Wright family will always be missing a piece; aware that they have experienced an unimaginable pain and trauma. While our legal system carries on with sentencing and imprisonment, it can never replace what that system stole from them in the first place: a son, a father, peace of mind, a future.

Potter’s sentencing offers the opportunity for reflection on many issues, some of which concern the pain and trauma the criminal legal system causes to communities across the country.

At CVT, we prioritize healing, support and advocacy for survivors of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In 2021, we began developing a new initiative that focuses on the trauma caused by human rights abuses perpetrated by U.S. government actors and the institutions of racism and violence upheld by the state. Through relationship building and connecting with community leaders and activists in the Twin Cities and other parts of the country, we are prioritizing criminal legal system and policing reform in the U.S. for the first time in CVT’s almost 40-year history. We’re dedicated to continue holding the U.S. accountable for state-inflicted human rights abuses on all people, including those who call the U.S. home.

50 years ago, there were fewer than 200,000 people imprisoned in the U.S. Now, there are more than that who are serving life sentences. Every year the U.S. spends $80 billion to keep over two million people imprisoned. The U.S. makes up five percent of the world’s population, but houses 20 percent of the world’s prisoners, making the country the global leader in incarceration. The current legal system fails communities and those who are imprisoned. We believe that reform is needed at every stage of the legal process, from arrests to bail, to criminal defense, trial, sentencing, incarceration, release/parole, and on.

To be clear, over-policing and the overutilization of extended imprisonment as justice impacts us all, but as we’re used to seeing, there are also some obvious racial disparities prevalent in imprisonment. For example, despite representing 13 percent of the population, Black men make up 35 percent of the incarcerated population. In that same regard, Black women are 13 percent of the female population, but are 44 percent of incarcerated women. Or the fact that one in five Black men who are incarcerated are serving life sentences. We see these disparities amongst Latinx people as well, though to a lesser extent. Overall, two thirds of all people serving life sentences and 58 percent of those on death row are BIPOC (42 percent are Black).

Despite what some will have you believe, this isn’t because BIPOC commit more crimes than white people; it’s because BIPOC are more policed, arrested and heavily sentenced than white people who commit crimes. For example, though more white people report using marijuana in their lifetime than Black people, Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use.

These numbers, while grotesque, are not surprising. In the U.S., laws and police have long been used to control BIPOC communities. With some of the country’s first structured policing systems created to preserve the enslavement, torture and exploitation of Blacks in America (“slave patrol,” “slave catchers” and “slave hunters”), to the weaponization of Black Codes after the passage of the 13th Amendment, legality and policing have long had foundations of violent racism. And yet, without a governmental acknowledgement and reckoning of that history and its modern impacts, citizens of all races are expected to support and find comfort in our legal system. But, how could they? A system built to control and disenfranchise the people, can never be for the people. Especially if that harm has never been addressed and rectified.

For more information about this portfolio and our priorities, please visit our Healing, Incarceration and Policing Program page here.

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