People of color are disproportionately present in the criminal justice system. They are arrested more, and they are incarcerated more. People of color are also disproportionately present in the population of people who have been wrongfully convicted. In fact, people of color make up 70 percent of those proven innocent through DNA testing. Black people specifically represent 47 percent of those found wrongfully convicted but only 13 percent of the nation’s population.
Similarly, low-income people are disproportionately present in both the criminal justice system and wrongful convictions. A huge cause of this is the public defender system.
Public defenders–attorneys who represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney–suffer from massive, sometimes unmanageable caseloads, and they are chronically underfunded, meaning that they are sometimes unable to consult the proper experts or conduct the necessary testing. While public defenders are some of the most dedicated and passionate advocates, they often are unable to properly represent people. In other words, poor people cannot afford justice and more easily fall victim to wrongful convictions.
Mass incarceration is a form of modern-day slavery. Jim Crow was mostly outlawed decades ago, and it is unconstitutional to buy and sell humans. However, the values and practices once present in slavery are kept alive today by the incarceration of communities of color.
This idea is best expressed in the 2010 book “The New Jim Crow” by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. She argues that through the incarceration of an extraordinary percentage of Black people that they are essentially enslaved—being denied basic rights like voting, serving on juries, not being legally discriminated against in employment and housing, and having access to education and public benefits. Black people are targeted through ignored discriminatory police and legal practices as well as government-led movements like the War on Drugs.
In Montana, mass incarceration is a huge problem that is made evident by the racial composition of our prisons. Native Americans are more than four times as likely to be incarcerated than white people. Black people are more than eight times as likely, and Hispanic people are more than two times as likely. These numbers are especially problematic considering that the population in Montana is 89 percent white, and there is no evidence that suggests race determines criminality.