A recent letter to the editor in our local paper suggested that our prison system is the country’s last legal form of slavery, and attaches a racial motive to California’s three-strikes law.
In the letter he accuses the United States of engaging in genocide against black men. He invokes the specter of lynchings, and compares it to California’s penal system, illustrating his point with a poem called “Strange Fruit.”
The poem, oddly enough, was written by a Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, under the pen name Allen Lewis. Meeropol is quoted in numerous sources as saying he wrote the poem in reaction to photos of a Southern lynching. The poem was later put to music and the song made famous by singer Billie Holiday.
It’s a powerful poem. But I question its relevance to California’s penal system today.
While I oppose the state’s three-strikes law, I’m not convinced that what’s wrong with it is some inherent racial bias.
The letter writer suggests the law, which imposes very long sentences on repeat offenders, is skewed in favor of imprisoning as many black men as possible.
The problem with this argument is that it implies either that the authorities are inventing crimes with which to charge these men, or this letter writer is saying black men can’t or shouldn’t be held responsible for their behavior.
For the record, I oppose the three-strikes law because, while it was billed as only attaching life sentences to people convicted repeatedly for violent crimes, the reality seems to be otherwise. There have been horror stories of people sentenced to life in prison for stealing pizza or bread and the like, and that is the stuff “Les Miserables” is made of.
However, to imply that somehow the law seeks out black men for especially harsh treatment, seems to be stretching it.
Conventional wisdom suggests that for every crime for which someone is caught, there have been a slew he’s gotten away with. If there is any truth to that, and it would seem to make sense, then the recipients of three-strikes sentences are not Mr. Rogers clones.
It sounds as though this letter writer is suggesting that our prisons are filled primarily with innocent black men, guilty only of being black men, and I question that conclusion.
Because the nation’s criminal justice system, relying as it does on human beings, is flawed, I’m sure there are innocent people of all ethnic persuasions in prisons all over the country, which is why I oppose the (irreversable) death penalty. But I don’t buy that a majority of black men, or anyone else in prison, are innocent.
Crimes are being committed. We know this. Innocent people are being victimized. This, too, is a fact. And the people committing these crimes are criminals who belong in prison, no matter what race they are.
There seems to be a subculture among some minority groups and others in this country, which revolves around a sense of entitlement, enforced in a sort-of macho, wantonly life-disregarding way. This seems, if news reports are any indication, to be most prevalent among males in their teens to early 30s — an age before many people wake up to the inherent briefness and desirability of life in general.
They’re trying to prove something, and don’t fully understand the nature of the consequences of what they do, for themselves or their victims. For these, many of whom I choose to believe are salvageable, some sort of very early intervention in the family/community context is called for – before someone gets hurt or killed.
Then there are the ones that do understand and don’t care. Those are the especially scary ones – the ones who belong locked away from the rest of society.
And this letter writer blames black lawyers and judges for not “resisting” the “genocide.”
“California’s three-strikes rule must be eradicated at once, and black judges and black lawyers should be the main advocates on the front lines,” he writes.
Why? Black lawyers and judges don’t want dangerous, predatory criminals of any color loose on the streets, any more than anyone else does.
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