View Full Version : Let's Get Free, Part 2

27th April 10, 08:05 AM
The book begins with a shocking analysis of the criminal justice system. It is a system that currently incarcerates 2.3 million people nationally, a number expected to grow to eight million by the end of next year. BUTLER, at pg. 27. 500,000 of these people are serving lengthy jail sentences for non-violent, drug crimes. This is a system, Professor Butler notes, that turns serving prison terms from a stigma into a rite of passage and subsequently creates communities where a large portion of the population are unemployable due to their criminal records. It is a system where there is no appreciable link between the amount of people in jail and the crime rate, and where blacks are incarcerated at a rate of 8 to 1 as compared to whites. According to Professor Butler, it is a system that destroys communities, accounts for more than twenty percent of the world’s prisoners, and serves to erode long standing civil liberties. It is a system taxpayers pay 60 billion dollars a year to continue.

Professor Butler is not against incarceration however. He ardently stands against all violent criminals, citing the conviction to help the innocent that drove him to become a prosecutor in the first place. Instead, Professor Butler identifies the criminalization of non-violent drug use as the fatal flaw in the American justice system. The history of drug crime laws is, as Professor Butler tells it, inextricably tied to race. At the turn of the century, several campaigns against opium, cocaine, and marijuana cited the drugs affects on ethnic groups as the principal motivation behind their prohibition. This trend continued through the 1970’s when President Nixon officially announced the War of Drugs. Since the start of the War on Drugs, drug related deaths have doubled, 44% of the population claims to have at least tried illegal drugs at some point, and the revenues from the sale of drugs would rate number 13 on the Fortune 500 list of largest US corporations. BUTLER, at pg. 49.

In lieu of criminalization, Professor Butler recommends that America follow the more successful methods of countries like Spain and Italy: harm reduction. This theory works by doing the following: decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of narcotics; implementing treatment programs for addicts; and establishing medical programs to help prevent the spread of drug related diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. By following this three step process, drug crime relating to the high cost of drugs, an artificial inflation brought about by their illegality, would likely go down and the cost of dealing with America’s drug addiction problem would decrease by over 700%. BUTLER, at pg. 52.

Another factor of the justice system Professor Butler critiques is the use of paid informants or “snitches.” In doing so, Professor Butler takes a controversial stance by being in favor of some elements of the “Stop Snitching Movement.” This movement, advocated by many in the hip hop and urban community, compels citizens to abstain from cooperating with police in any way. Professor Butler, of course, does not go to this extreme, but instead encourages community members to report violent crimes and thefts and act as witnesses when appropriate. What the professor criticizes, however, is the use paid informants, who are usually convicted criminals or those facing long federal and state criminal sentences.

In federal drug cases, almost 30% of defendants get sentence reductions for cooperating with federal investigations into other defendants’ drug cases. BUTLER, at pg. 82. In the FBI’s annual budget report, this is an allocation for over 15,000 informants, while the DEA allocates payouts to 4000 informants. Professor Butler examines the prevalence of snitching in the communities most vulnerable to crime. According to his research, police departments will often forgo other leads and make arrests of small distributors of drugs, while allowing major suppliers to continue on undisturbed. This undermines the very purpose of drug laws and exacerbates tensions between urban and ethnic communities and the police, as seen by the birth of the “Stop Snitching Movement” and the police response.

Professor Butler proposes the following metric for citizens to follow in regards to reporting crime: if reporting the crime makes the community safer, than the citizen is obligated to report it. The reasoning behind Professor Butler’s stance is that the effect of reporting non-violent crimes that do not harm the community only serves to create discord and animosity between neighbors and citizens. Instead, by reporting all crime that has a definite negative impact on the community, overall crime goes down and cohesiveness and safety in the community increases.

In explaining his alternative to the current system, Professor Butler advocates that society looks to those most affected by the criminal justice system: the black community. With over 50% of the prison population, Professor Butler argues, the black community is in an exceptionally unique position as it relates to criminal justice. BUTLER, at pg. 142. This perspective is articulated most clearly in the hip hop community, which arose 30 years ago in the poorest and most crime ridden neighborhood in New York City: the South Bronx. During this time, young musicians would perform public remixes of popular songs, using turntables and rhythmic improvisational singing to alter existing music into new expressions relevant to their experiences. This musical style flourished during the 1980’s and became one of, if not the, prime influencers of modern popular music. Behind the music, however, there is a cultural movement that encompasses film, politics, literature, and, as Professor Butler demonstrates, legal theory.

This “Hip Hop” theory rest primarily on three principals:
First, people who harm others should be harmed in return. Second, criminals are human beings who deserve respect and love. Third, communities can be destroyed by both crime and punishment. BUTLER, at pg. 133. Hip hop lyrics are replete with examples of the first idea and constantly espouse an almost biblical preference for retribution of wrongs. This is of course mirrored by one of our existing system’s primary maxims, the philosophical principal that persons should pay for their wrongful acts.

The second principal is not as readily embraced by our legal system. It even seems contradictory when compared to the preceding idea of swift, proportional reprisal; however, upon inspection of hip hop culture the cause becomes evident. In the hip hop community, there is little, if any, stigma attached to serving prison sentences for certain crimes. Instead, convictions for possession and selling of drugs, gang related assaults, and in some infrequent cases, murder, are de rigor in most circles and even badges of honor in a limited few. Again, the unique hip hop perspective into criminal justice is not that those who have served time in prisons are bad persons not fit for society, but are instead dearly missed friends, brothers, and fathers. While this tacit acceptance of criminal behavior does marginalize to some degree the devastating effects of crime on the community, it does show the human element so often over looked in criminal law.

The third principal is another such perspective that is distinctly “hip hop” in character. Much like the second principal, the idea of looking at the effects of both crime and punishment on the community is rooted in the direct effect both have on certain populations. The areas hardest hit by crime are the areas hardest hit by proposed solutions. Just as there are negative, often violently destructive consequences for crimes, including drug crimes, there exists a perpetuating cycle in some communities where fighting crime paradoxically begets more crime. For instance, those forced to grow up with a father in prison are, unfortunately, more likely to be incarcerated themselves. Also, the economic effects of having a prison record can marginalize whole populations from the work force, leaving only crime as a viable means to survive. In some neighborhoods, incarceration rates are so high that there is virtually no male presence.

Taking these devastating effects into account, Professor Butler proposes embracing some new, and admittedly controversial, alternatives to the penal system. The professor recognizes the ability of electronic monitoring to alleviate some of the direct and indirect costs of imprisonment. Modern advances in monitoring technology allow correction authorities to track and confine offenders outside of the traditional prison system and help rehabilitate offenders by having them work and live in general society. Also, for drug addicted offenders, there are several prescription drugs that help combat withdraw symptoms and even aid in overcoming the addictive behaviors themselves. Professor Butler even recognizes the possibilities offered by gene therapy to help alleviate psychological and physiological causes of crime. Additionally, some non-scientific fixes promulgated by the book include: paying children to stay in school and perform better scholastically; reducing the amount of lead, exposure to which is known to affect behavior latter in life, in public buildings and private tenements; ending racial profiling; better adjusting sentencing requirements to the severity of crimes; and, of course, ending the War on Drugs.