Updated: Mar 27
By Shayler Richmond
Minorities and impoverished Americans have not yet been able to escape the systemic oppression that lives so freely within the United States legal system.
The systemic oppression of marginalized Americans begins at the initial point of contact and never ceases. African American males in particular have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement.
“I was falsely accused by an officer for armed robbery and served 40 days in a jail with no bond for a crime that I did not commit,” said Deante Steel, 28-years-old.
Bond is a legal settlement that disproportionately affects the poor because it creates the opening for those who commit the same crime to be punished at different levels of severity. In countries such as England, bond for each crime is set on a weighted scale to affect each person equally. There are police officers working within the United States legal system who shared witnessing how legal practices such as bond disproportionately affect marginalized Americans, but were unable to provide their name on record.
Practices such as these have been in place since the founding of American government and Judges are elected officials who order these sentences. Therefore, time and voter suppression are two variables that have gave way to oppression becoming systemic within the United States legal system.
There are several stages between an arrest and a conviction, and between a conviction and sentencing. At each stage the decision of judges and attorneys take precedence which allows for the clear lack of diverse representation to create disadvantages.
Unable to go on record public defenders have admitted to using measures to avoid taking cases to trial. It's not so much about proving innocence as it is about lessening the pain.
Minorities and impoverished Americans are two of the most marginalized groups and failed most by the legal system. Although most discussed, slavery and unarmed police shootings aren’t the only charges of oppression the United States legal system can account for. Disparities are also visible through heavier sentences, heavier parameters of probation, and extended lengths of time served.
“I’ve noticed that if a judge or lawyer can relate to a defendant they tend to sympathize. They tend to do more, such as cut better deals, and go above and beyond because they see themself,” said Nehemiah Williams, student attorney for the Washtenaw County public defender’s office.
“However, i have found that when officials can’t see themselves in a defendant they tend to not care as much. The defendant becomes just a set of facts instead of a person,” Williams continued.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Disparities exists as well for impoverished Americans that cannot afford private counsel.
“People like myself and others who can’t afford counsel go to court expecting public defenders to fight on our behalf, but instead courts care more about receiving the money we don’t have,” said Anthony Godwin, 26-years-old.
Often public defenders get handed everything so their workload becomes burdened. On the other hand private attorneys determine their caseload, and in many cases are better equip to attribute time and resources to each client’s case.
“Those with money and privilege end up better off, and we end up stuck in the system,” said Godwin. “I wish my public defender would have helped me more. They tend to lean toward solutions that benefit the courts rather than working toward solutions for all parties involved.”
African American males are placed at the mercy of the United States legal system far more than any other identity. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
“Many minorities don’t have the same financial resources, nor the same level of exposure, nor the same level of education, so they are getting dealt poor hands,” said Williams.
The effects of systematic oppression are often discussed in peak moments of tragedy, such as following the police shootings of unarmed black men, while marginalized Americans continue to be systematically hindered across the board.
“Defendants should be proactive, take responsibility, and become educated as soon as possible, which is pivotal because the odds aren’t in their favor so they should do everything in their power to offset those hurdles,” said Williams.
America has placed a low expectation and low value on marginalized groups of people since before discrimination was written into the Constitution. Today minorities in America that escape losing their lives to police brutality haven’t escaped the systemic oppression that lives so freely within the United States legal system because America was built on marginalizing these individuals.
“To the extent individuals are caught up in the legal system and their circumstances can’t be alleviated. It places emphasis for those of us not in those circumstances to try and change the system,” said Mark Fancher, attorney and member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan.
Many people conform their actions and activities to what they believe will keep them safe within the structures that exist now and have existed in the United States.
“People who are truly free don’t live conforming their thinking and conforming their actions to what they think will allow them to remain safe. They make determinations about what is just and what in unjust and they do the just thing,” said Fancher.