Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Racial discrimination is often used to explain the fact that 1 percent of American adults is behind bars and that we’re the only Western democracy not to have abolished the death penalty. Given that America’s prisoners are disproportionately black and Hispanic, this is understandable. But what’s often overlooked is class — even though the clear majority of white, black and Hispanic prisoners stems from the underclass and working class.
Criminal justice systems are largely a reflection of economic systems. It is no coincidence that their practices are the most humane in Scandinavian countries, known for their high degree of economic solidarity. In a society marked by sharp wealth inequality, such as modern-day America, the criminal justice system can come to negate solidarity and embody the notion that those at the bottom rungs of society are little more than a nuisance. Thus, the U.S. criminal justice system emphasizes harsh retribution, disfavors rehabilitation and tends to ignore social factors behind crime, such as poverty, failing public schools or lax gun control.
America could put an end to mass incarceration by following the example of other Western democracies. Prison terms in those countries are much shorter in all types of cases, and very lengthy terms are usually reserved for the worst offenders. With regard to nonviolent offenders, these countries are also less likely to rely on incarceration as opposed to fines or probation. In addition to other reforms, America should therefore abandon peculiar and counterproductive policies like the “War on Drugs,” “three strikes laws” and harsh mandatory-minimum stays in prison.
Authorizing the recreational use of marijuana — like the Netherlands, Colorado and Washington have done — could go a long way. In 2011, over 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in America, 87 percent of whom were charged with possession only. As documented by Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow,” local police departments have received substantial federal funding to aggressively pursue minor offenders as part of the “War on Drugs.” Such incentives should be eliminated.
However, it is difficult to imagine meaningful reforms without a change of perspective. The main reason why mass incarceration exists — despite well-known solutions — is that few Americans consider it a real “problem.” Only a segment of the public is even aware that America has by far the world’s top incarceration rate. Some citizens feel concerned, but many think that draconian punishments are “just deserts,” a public safety imperative or both. Neither political party genuinely aims to tackle the issue.
Efforts to reform the system have been minimal because the premises behind harsh punishments tend to stay the same. For instance, voters recently scaled back California’s “three strikes” law. The third strike will now have to be for a “serious or violent” crime, with various exceptions. But penalties remain draconian — instead of 25-years-to-life for a third strike, nonviolent offenders will now get a sentence twice as long as normal. That is still an extremely long time, given that “normal” sentences nowadays are far lengthier than in other Western democracies and than they were in America before the rise of the “tough on crime” movement. But California’s reform is a step forward. Certain nonviolent prisoners are now in the process of being resentenced to shorter prison terms or are being released after having served extensive time.
Supporters of mass incarceration have been relatively successful at labeling advocates of reform “soft on crime.” In order to move forward, the public will have to prove more discerning and not be swayed by the politicians, judges and prosecutors who campaign for office by exploiting fear of crime. Needless to say, elected officials will also have to refrain from demagoguery and develop the will to push for what may be unpopular reforms, a change that seems implausible nowadays.
Most importantly, an end to mass incarceration is hard to foresee without a shift towards a socio-economic system rooted in greater equality and solidarity. The fact that prisoners mainly stem from the underclass and working class prevents certain Americans from identifying with them. As long as prisoners are commonly dehumanized, much of the general public and political leadership may be unwilling to accept significant criminal justice reform. While racial discrimination and other factors help explain mass incarceration, the lowly social status of poor people of all colors at a time of acute wealth inequality is a key reason why over 2.2 million human beings live behind bars in modern-day America.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)