by Nikkita Oliver
As I was sworn in by Judge Susan Craighead as a part of the latest batch of new lawyers at King County Bar Association ceremonies last month, in my mind I thought, “I hope that in 20 years I do not compromise my principles to be accepted by an inequitable justice system or to allow the system to continue to function in unjust ways.”
I am sure that in many ways who I am and what I stand for is frustrating to the legal profession—a profession that has historically valued legal precedent over what is just. In this country we have used the law to justify racism, slavery, genocide, civil rights violations, juvenile life sentencing, mass incarceration, and many other atrocities. It is hard to accept, but the law and justice are not the same thing. We must remain cognizant of our historical and present day failures and vow both in word and deed to be better—to change for the better of all humans. Though the law has historically remained resistant to change; especially in reference to marginalized and oppressed peoples.
According to the 2013 Department of Justice Census Data over 1.5 million people were incarcerated in State and Federal prisons with nearly 7 million people under correctional control at the end of 2013. Research organizations, like the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), believe that number to be much higher. When Juvenile Correctional Facilities, Local Jails, Indian Country Jails, and Detention Centers are incorporated into the data over 2.4 million people are incarcerated in the United States.
In a report regarding racial disparities PPI points out that black people make up only 13% of the U.S. population but compose 40% of the U.S. prison population. Together, black people and Latino people, make up 59% of the prison population but only 29% of the overall U.S. population.
To paint a picture of how disproportionate and disparate the system is—black people are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people though white people make up well over 50% of the United States population. These statistics are disturbing and point us towards a need for a complete overhaul of the justice system. We need more than reform. We need principle over compromise because compromise is a part of the problem.
As a black bi-racial woman I cannot compromise. If we continue on this path one day I will give birth to a child to whom I will have to explain the aforementioned atrocities (and more), not as a historical lesson but as a present day reality for a child with black or brown skin. I will have to give my child tools to combat a system that still judges them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. I will have to teach my child that there is nothing wrong with the color of their skin despite what the system may tell them. I will spend many nights and many days worried for their safety until they are once again home with me. These are just a few of the fears of black parents in the United States.
Judge Susan Craighead in a recent article entitled “Zero Detention’ – Principle over Compromise” insinuated that those of us who are unwilling to compromise our principles to build a new children’s jail in Seattle are immature. I beg to differ. It requires maturity to hold to your principles in the face of injustice and authority rooted in white supremacy that still neglects to fully recognize your black human experience in this country. It takes courage to say, “We will not compromise this time. We will not bend over backwards to be acceptable. Our lives and our children’s lives depend on us holding to our principles.”
Judge Craighead recognized in her article that the justice system is stacked against poor people and people of color and that this leads to unfair imprisonment of both. This is not new information. There is data and statistics everywhere that tell us that this is true. So why do we accept it? Why do we settle for mere reform when we know that families are being destroyed by a racist and inequitable so called “justice system”? Why do we accept injustice and call it fair?
We have become used to accepting compromise and reform over principle as common practice. Compromise has become precedent in the legal system while principles are pushed to the wayside in favor of backroom deals, plea bargains and diplomacy. There is nothing diplomatic about the destruction of black, brown and poor families by the legal system. So why should we forego our principles, and ultimately our lives, for a whitewashed version of diplomacy and compromise?
Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” That is what we are doing. What we want is an end to incarceration because it is dehumanizing and it is torture. We recognize that harms will occur and we must have a restorative practice in place to address these harms and set them right. There are many alternatives to incarceration.
We, a community, made up of youth, youth workers, formerly incarcerated peoples, parents, organizers, artist, teachers, doctors, and lawyers, etc., are working on such solutions. Even more notable, are the youth of EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex) who continue to strive forward with integrity and hope for a better future for themselves and their peers. Together we are planning for and building alternatives to incarceration. We are doing so without equitable resources and with a whole system stacked against us. Nonetheless, we work tirelessly and diligently to educate ourselves and Councilmembers (like Mike O’Brien) on the alternatives to incarceration.
The Seattle City Council did not vote unanimously for “Zero Detention” because we talk well. They voted unanimously for “Zero Detention” because we do our homework, we know what we are talking about, we present brilliant solutions, we represent the most impacted communities, and, most importantly, in the long-run, “Zero Detention” makes sense.
When bureaucrats suggest in print publications that we are immature for standing firmly on our principles and believing that something better is possible they expose who they are. They expose a belief in their own supremacy and continued investment in a racist system. A system that still does not give ear to the children and families most impacted by the criminal injustice system. A system whose flaws and atrocities have been identified time and time again, but still is allowed to persist.
I agree with Judge Craighead that a paradigm shift is essential. The people I am honored to organize with do not simply have the courage to make a paradigm shift. We already have. We have the courage to know it is possible and to stand on principle without compromise. We will do what we know is right and let the law catch up.
Nikkita Oliver is a South End based poet, lawyer, and community organizer.