Prisoners of a Broken System

By David Donnelly

This morning’s New York Times carried a story about an upcoming report that found nearly a third of all Americans aged 23 or younger have been arrested. It’s a shocking statistic. My wife pointed it out to me as we were getting our children (aged 11 and 13) ready for school, and we couldn’t help wondering what kind of country they’re growing up in. Inequality on the rise. Joblessness persists. More than a quarter of all homes “underwater” (probably including ours if I worked up the gumption to check). Big bonuses raining down on the one percent. Wild spikes and drops in temperature from day-to-day. And it seems like those in power are simply whistling by the graveyard.

Are our political and economic institutions able to actually resolve these issues? I’m worried about that answer.

But back to this report this morning about a third of all youth (30.2% to be exact) getting arrested. The report didn’t delve into demographics but you can be sure that a higher proportion of African American and Latino youth have been arrested than non-Hispanic whites.

I can hear my neighbor now: “Well, if they didn’t want to get arrested, then they shouldn’t commit the crime.”

But what comments like that miss is that getting arrested for committing a crime is not a function of simply whether one broke the law. If it was, I must have missed the massive perp walk from Wall Street to the court arraignments for the crimes committed by bankers, mortgage brokers, and CEOs of Wall Street firms, all of whom condemned us to an era of a downwardly-mobile economy and the societal challenges that come along with it. No, what constitutes a reason for arrest in today’s America doesn’t include hundreds of billions in fraudulent mortgage practices but does include minor drug use.

That’s wrong. And it’s not by accident. It’s the result of public policy decisions our elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels have made to incarcerate or detain some of our fellow citizens and to let some, particularly those who provide campaign cash, go free. I can’t help but think back a month to the report we co-released with PICO National Network that chronicled the influence of the private prison industry in creating and lobbying for incarceration and detention policies that lead to the jailing of our youth and the break up of immigrant families.

There’s an immorality all its own when we let profits dictate who goes to prison and for how long. Yet this morning’s news coverage shouldn’t just prick our consciences about who is going to jail – it should raise the questions about why some aren’t.