On any given day in Texas 726,000 people are locked behind bars or are on some form of criminal supervision. Oftentimes, the difference between their freedom and continued incarceration depends on the words we write in a legal brief, a letter, or speak to a judge in a hearing. Words matter in the court, they should also matter in the way we speak about the racist and unjust system that locks up more people than any other state in this country.
Texas outpaces the United States, United Kingdom, and other western nations in incarceration. And yet in TV shows, movies, and in our own non-profits, we continue to call it the “criminal justice system” — what is “just” about it? What is “just” about Black people being incarcerated at four times the rate of White people in Texas? Even though the incarceration rate is decreasing for Black people across the nation, the opposite is true in Texas.
What is “just” about a system of pretrial policies where people who cannot afford to pay bail languish behind bars while people with means are allowed to remain free? In Harris County, 80% of people in the jail are presumed innocent and would be released pending trial if they could afford to pay. The insidiousness of white supremacy also means that Black and Brown people receive bail amounts that are twice as high as bail set for White defendants – and they are less likely to be able to afford it.
What is “just” about the horrendous conditions of Texas’ prisons where the state allowed dangerously high heat temperatures and poor ventilation to endanger the health of people inside for prolonged periods?
And what is “just” about Texas being the first to adopt the private prison model that exploded across the country in the last 30 years? A system where prison labor remains unpaid. A system that directly parallels how enslaved Africans toiled their plantation owner’s cotton and other crops for free and how their bodies served as financial assets.
These plain truths are the opposite of “justice.”
“Injustice” accurately characterizes this grave state of affairs. Like duh. (“Duh” means no sh*t Sherlock, of course, obviously.) It goes without saying that I’m not the first person to recognize the criminal legal system for what it is: unfair, unequal, unjust— by impact and by design. But from now on, we will name it for what it is. Because in doing so we are laying the struggle bare for everyone to see. We need all hands on deck to transform Texas’s criminal legal system into one that promotes fairness, humanity, and justice…. I’m excited to fight alongside you.