Everyone I know has broken a law in their life, but not everyone I know has gone to jail or been charged with a crime. The people who are charged with crime in the United States of America are poor and mostly minorities. And in terms of character, I don’t view them as any different. The folk I see in those courts are no different than me and you. The difference is they don’t have the resources. They don’t have the money primarily. And when they say, ‘I made a mistake,’ the courts don’t listen to them. When you and I say we made a mistake, people listen to us. And suppose we couldn’t get the money together to take care of the problem. As far as I’m concerned, what society views as a criminal is a poor person who didn’t have the resources to address the issue up front. We’re all lawbreakers. There’s zero question that every single person I know has broken a law, and probably committed felonies, and they just haven’t been arrested for it. Or, they had the resources to address it, so it didn’t become a major problem.
Listen to what poor people say and what people from communities of color tell you about the legal system and take it at face value. Reduce some of your skepticism about this just because it hasn’t happened to you. The FBI says 96% of the people who are arrested in American are arrested for non-violent offenses [excluding traffic violations]. We incarcerate six times the number of African Americans as South Africa incarcerated at the height of apartheid. These are just numbers that are impossible to ignore, and those aren’t numbers that Arch City Defenders came up with. You take probably the most conservative source of information and they’re saying this is a huge problem.
Mostly what I hear is when we set up this system, we never thought about the way it would affect poor people. That’s the most dangerous thing I’ve heard a person say.
We shouldn’t need that statistical support to believe human beings when they tell us what happened. Go to a homeless shelter. Go to a jail. And talk to five people about why they’re there. You’ll never hear someone say, ‘I woke up this morning and chose to be homeless or chose to be arrested.’ You will hear a story of things that happen to human beings. ‘I got sick. My car broke down. I lost my job.’ That happens to everybody, right? Everyone we know. Where are the resources to support you when those things happen? It’s the difference between a homeless person and a person who has access to additional resources. That’s the difference. It’s important to talk to people, treat them as human beings, listen to what people are saying, and take it seriously. I think if people just did that, that would be enough. It would be changing.