The ongoing debate concerning the disproportionate presence of African-Americans and other minorities in the criminal justice system has become crucial as the United States tries to find an approach to fund its prisons in an ailing economy. Paul Butler, a former prosecutor and author of the book Let’s Get Free: A Hip Hop Theory of Justice, spoke about this issue at the Center for American Progress (CAP) on July 1, 2009. He believes the criminal justice system needs to undergo major reform.
“I didn’t go to law school to put anybody in prison [when] their being in prison wouldn’t do us on the outside, or them, any good,” said Butler. Critics would respond that focusing on the sole benefit of society misses the key purpose of the criminal justice system, namely to punish offenders. Critics argue that if the system centers around reform and rehabilitation, then the concept of punishment will be considered to be more harmful than the crime itself.
Butler argued that expansion of the prison population “has nothing to do with the crime rate.” The question as to what actually constitutes a “crime” separates Butler from those who would disagree with Butler’s progressive point of view. Though there are many standard norms accepted by society as crimes, other offenses are considered crimes based on a localized standard, differing from state to state or from country to country.
America needs a “more effective criminal justice” system, Butler said, expressing his concern that “when too many people are locked up we are actually less safe on the streets.” Butler argued that the United States has reached this “tipping point” and should try a different approach to dealing with certain crimes, “especially drugs.”
(CAP is heavily funded by George Soros’ Open Society Institute. As Accuracy in Media editor Cliff Kincaid has reported, Soros supports the legalization of many drugs).
Butler advocated for the release of many of the “500,000 people who are now locked up for drug crimes,” saying this would actually make us “safer.” Calling drug offenses “nonviolent” crimes, Butler argued that those who work in the criminal justice system should not focus so predominantly on these types of offenses.
“It’s really something we ought to think more about as a public heath issue than as a punishment issue,” he said.
Asserting that the problems within the system are a direct result of the police “abus[ing]” their authority to stop and arrest, Butler cautioned that flooding the system with too many “non-violent” offenders shifts law enforcement’s attention off solving violent crimes. He explained that the arrests of such “non-violent” offenders were primary examples of such abuses, referring to the police as wielding an “extraordinary power.”
Butler further argued that juries should use their right to “jury nullification” and vote against convicting those accused of “nonviolent drug offenses” in order to “to get attention on this problem.”
The country could also improve its criminal justice system by listening to the message of “hip-hop” music, according to Butler. “In their music, in their art, in their fashion, [hip-hop artists] are imagining a better, more effective system,” he said.
Joy Moses, a Policy Analyst for the Poverty Program at the Center for American Progress said that even though some of Butler’s “suggestions may seem radical” to outside observers, it is “important to have this discussion.”
This point actually shows why the concept of punishment is so important to the criminal justice system. The public has the right to decide what actions they consider to be outside the scope of accepted moral decorum and punish them as crimes. If Butler believes that his ideas truly are the better solutions, he is more than welcome to argue for them in the court of public opinion and advocate that they become the new changes in criminal law.
The majority of Americans have been generally resistant to the types of extreme suggestions offered by Butler, however. Not punishing drug offenders will probably be seen as less “hip” and more “hype.”