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COVID-19 & Criminal justice

It is challenging to choose a single issue to discuss because COVID-19 magnifies many of the multifaceted issues that exist. Nonetheless, each issue is more interconnected than they may appear and by addressing one, there are subsequent implications. While the United States theoretically has the Eighth Amendment, which protects from cruel and unusual punishments, our criminal justice system appears to be exempt from applying this Constitutional Amendment.

The structure is built off of a penal code, where the rehabilitative function is superseded by punishment. Furthermore, we have witnessed how the criminal justice system has become one of the newest forms of racialized violence due to the disproportionate rates of incarceration for young black men, specifically regarding drug usage, compared to white individuals. Michelle Alexander argues in her book, The New Jim Crow, that mass incarceration is a redesigned Jim Crow. The pervasiveness of mass incarceration reinforces this notion as she points out because “rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

Consequently, additional inequities transpire. Voting disenfranchisement is especially relevant as 48 out of 50 states do not allow incarcerated individuals to vote according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. After serving one's sentence, some states continue to forbid previously incarcerated individuals from voting. Additionally, the immortality of criminal records acts as a barrier for retaining a job post-incarceration. The NAACP reports, “[a] criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. The negative impact of a criminal record is twice as large for African American applicants.” The rates of marijuana arrests follow a similar trend that highlights the discrepancy even more between white and non-white arrests. In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson discusses the iniquitous reality of the death penalty in the United States. He highlights how the practice has been a tool of fear-mongering and “legal lynching” for people of color. Moreover, “for every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated.”

Yet, even with this information, New Hampshire has not legalized marijuana and only recently abolished the death penalty, much to Governor Sununu’s chagrin as he attempted to veto it. Across the country, COVID-19 is illuminating that we need to put a larger spotlight on prisons, and not only the conditions in which people are being subjected but how they are prosecuted in the first place. We cannot allow this virus to use these environments as Petri dishes any longer. We need to do and be better. As elections come up this fall, we need to be cognizant of the candidates that will be the catalyst for change and stop the cycle of injustice that has far too long created an atmosphere of discrimination and perpetuated racialized violence. It is possible and we can do it together.


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