Disrupt   |  September 22, 2013

The fight for reform in the justice system

MSNBC colleague Ari Melber, co-host of The Cycle, joins Karen Finney to talk about the effect systemic inequalities in the U.S. criminal justice system can have on communities of color.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we all understand we have to be vigilant against any attack. whether that means tearing down barriers put up by those who seek to restrict the right to vote, or making sure our criminal justice system works equally well for everybody, not just for some.

>> that was president obama at last night's congressional black caucus awards dinner talking about the impact systemic inequalities in our criminal justice system have on communities of color. over the past 30 years the united states prison population has more than quadrupled from 500,000 to 2.4 million. it's estimated that 1 in every 100 adults is currently behind bars. the failed war on drugs, mand moir minimum sentences and three strikes laws that were originally marketed as efforts to get tough on crime have resulted in discrimination as poor people and minorities are disproportionately being given longer sentences than white defendants. for example, the naacp reports that five times as many whites are using drugs as african-americans. yet blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites. the pathway into the prison system starts early. studies show that young black and brown children are more likely to receive harsh punishments than their white counterparts. one result in the school to prison pipeline means young black and brown kids are labeled as difficult or a problem early in their school careers. they're unfairly suspended, expelled, and sometimes arrested for harmless offenses. according to to safe quality schools.org students have been arrested for things as innocuous has scribbling on their desk and using a tv show theme song as their ring tone . while sentencing reform is typically thought to be a liberal fight, increasingly libertarians are joining the cause. among them, kentucky senator rand paul who raised the issue during a recent senate judiciary hearing. senator paul tells the story of a 19-year-old african-american, a young man on his way to college, who ended up on the receiving end of a ten-year prison sentence .

>> federal judge timothy lewis recalls a case where he had to send a 19-year-old to prison for conspiracy. what was the conspiracy? the young man was in a car where drugs were found. i don't know about you, this is judge lewis, but i'm pretty sure one of us might have been in a car in our youth at one point in time where there might have been drugs in the car.

>> joining us now, my colleague, ari, co-host of the cycle. looking at this and a range of issues in the criminal system through "presumed guilty." thank you for coming in.

>> thank you.

>> i wanted to talk about this. "a," i thought the series has been fantastic. also, this idea with all the dysfunction that's been going on in the last couple weeks the idea that maybe there's a common ground here between liberals and libertarians that could actually have a real change .

>> yeah. i think you hit it on the head. there are a lot of big stories here that are about dysfunction, and that's true. but when you see eric holder come out and say that consistent with president obama 's leadership, they want to go at the war on drugs in a different way and reduce the overreliance on prison as the solution to everything when people have nonviolent offenses or as you mentioned school to prison pipeline, that's great. that's one piece of the puzzle. then when you see rand paul and an increasing number of libertarian voices who have more power in this party joining and supporting that and then this week going and testifying and pushing the safety valve act in the senate, which is leahy and paul , that's real. that's not just talk anymore.

>> we've got some sound from a couple of libertarians actually supporting the cause. let's go ahead and play that.

>> even if you think a drug law shouldn't be on the books at all, the sentences are far too harsh. so this is something where libertarians can agree with progressives that the sentences need to be reduced quickly.

>> now, ari, here's the thing that -- why now? we know overcrowding in prisons has become a very serious problem in a number of states like california comes to mind as one of them. but why now are we seeing this confluence of people coming together to say, hey, let's do something about this?

>> i think it's been a long time coming. i think what we're finally seeing is a breaking point in the exhaustion of incarceration as the solution. at the state level where we often see things happen first, in georgia and tennessee, republican controlled legislatures have already put some of this into place. we're seeing more pressure against mandatory minimums in ohio and to some degree in california. this stuff is very expensive. so in a time where people at the state level and federal are talking about budgets, there's sort of a ridiculous version of that that's just meant to beat up on the president. we've covered that. but then there is also real concern about, well, what are we spending our money on? this is an area where you can cut and get the libertarian wing of the republican party and progressives onboard. i to think it's significant. even for folks who watch and say, well, i don't trust rand paul . there are a lot of reasons not to trust rand paul . but if he's echoing a progressive claim that we've made for years, not only that this is too expensive, but that it's racially unjust, that's how you win in politics. you get the other side to come around.

>> do we think that for rand paul and the libertarians it's the racial injustice or it's the expense issue? as sort of the president was talking about last night, as i was talking about in the intro, when we look at where this starts, this really starts very young. when kids are, you know, black and brown children, singled out early on, you're a problem, you get suspended, you get in trouble, you are far more likely to then sort of fall into that system than necessarily be seen as the "a" student, you know, going to college. we know it starts early. we know the prejudice and bias starts early. i don't necessarily hear that piece of the equation from these guys. but i suppose i'll take their support one way or the other. but is there sort of a fundamental understanding of where this really starts?

>> i don't think in the republican party the majority of the concern here goes to that sort of systemic understanding that you're outlining. although i think there's room for overlap. i think for the political piece of it, look, there are some people who are libertarians because it's not cool to say republican anymore. it's become like the more acceptable version of conservative. then there are some like tim flynn that we showed up there who works at kato which is funded by the koch brothers. a lot of deregulatory policies we disagree with. but tim, who's been a lawyer and written books about this, has said for years this is bad policy to lock people up over nonviolent offenses and lock them up for years. to some degree to the point you made about youth to take people out of school. the case rand paul was mentioning was a student who was going to be the first african-american student in his family to ever go to college. and tim lewis , who is an african-american judge, who was appointed actually by a republican president, was saying this shows how pervasively racist the policy is. because you don't see it applied for mandatory minimums to the same degree to white defendants.

>> now, i'm a political person. you know that. i'm going to be just a little bit cynical here. you're right. for some republicans being libertarian is because being republican is not so cool anymore. we know the republican party has a big problem when it comes to the african-american community. it strikes me, and we were sort of looking at some of the numbers of incarceration rates, blacks in kentucky, for example, this could be a way for libertarians to build a bridge. let's say you're running for president in 2016 . i'll just throw that out there. a way to build a bridge to the black community.

>> i think that's right. i mean, one of my big problems with rand paul historically was that his view of a libertarian government went so severe that he said he was against actually applying the civil rights act .

>> exactly.

>> so there are a lot of concerns where if he wants to be a national figure, he's got that problem. eric cantor , who's made some interesting gestures, although they're only gestures at this point, about the voting rights act , has about a 20% african-american district there in virginia. he sounds, i guess -- i wouldn't say good. i would say less offensive than some of the other members of republican leadership. there may be a bit of political economy in play as well.

>> you know what, i'll take it. thank you, ari.