The Criminal Justice System: We Need to Do Better

Opinions_Wilson_Prison_Matthias Müller_flickr

Flickr / Mathias Müller

Brianna Wilson
Staff Writer

In 1978, long before I was ever born, my grandmother was arrested for the murder of her husband. My grandmother’s only child, my mother, was 6 years old. She was charged with first degree murder but pled guilty to second degree to avoid the possibility of capital punishment. Her sentence was 20 years to life. She was only 27 years old.

My grandmother killed her husband because he was abusive to her and her her daughter, my mother. The only reason my grandmother killed her husband was to protect her daughter, yet she was condemned to sit in prison, unable to watch my mother grow up for trying to keep her safe.

She made the choice she made because she had no other one. If she would have tried to leave, he would have killed her. If she would have tried to get a divorce, he would have killed her. If she would have somehow successfully left, her community would have shunned her for leaving her husband.

All too often people in our society separate prisoners in their minds from all other human beings. People condemn someone before they know the truth or even the circumstances that led to them to become imprisoned. The vast majority of our society thinks of prisoners as an unnecessary reality that is void of all humanity and undeserving of any compassion.

People blamed her for being in prison. She was expected to take what her husband did to her without complaints. While times have changed some, they haven’t changed much. Prisoners are still subjected to judgement by a community that does not understand the decisions that led to a crime.

The people judging these criminals, in the justice system and the community, cannot understand what it is like to watch someone hurt your child. Or to watch your family go hungry. Or to lose everything because you made a stupid decision.

Most humans do not make decisions purely out of malice. I say most because obviously people like my grandmother’s husband did, but most people are just doing what they can to have a good, happy life. They do what they can to care for the people they love, even if that means doing something illegal.

Those of us who have never been in a position where we had to make the choice to do something illegal or watch someone we care about suffer or suffer ourselves should not be casting such harsh judgements. We have lost so much compassion with the reality of our prison system. We dehumanize people who are just as human as us because they were pushed into a corner.

Rather than punish people who felt they had no other choice, we should be creating more programs and systems that help people in need. There should be easier ways for women to get out of abusive marriages and get a divorce. There should be more support for the people who are living in poverty, unable to feed their families. There should be rehabilitation for people who are doing drugs.

While I recognize that there are some truly bad people out there who commit violent crimes, the vast majority of offenses that have led to the prison population we have not were not violent. Over 46 percent of people in U.S. prisons were charged with drug related offenses according to data collected by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in September of this year. The next highest percentage of people in prisons were charged with possession of weapons, explosives or arson. That is only 17.2 percent of criminal charges.

While my grandmother did commit a violent offense, she did so for a reason I consider good, and I can seldom find anyone who will argue with me on that opinion. We need to show more compassion for the people who are put through our criminal justice system. We need to create new programs that lessen the number of people who go to prison and lessen the number of people who return after getting out. We need to stop arresting people for nonviolent crimes and instead get them he help they need. We need to try to understand rather than condemn one another. We need to do better for our people and our future.

Categories: Columns, Opinions


2 replies

  1. Beautiful article I totally agree with you. People are far to quick to judge others especially if they have been in prison. There are far to many addicts in prison many of whom never get treatment while they serve their time. I’d love to talk with the writer of this article if she would like to shake the tree of change with me.


  2. Your piece, The Criminal Justice System, seemingly attempts to draw a distinction between people who commit violent crimes and those who commit non-violent crimes. This dichotomy is extremely disheartening because there is hardly always a rational difference, and such language harms efforts at meaningful criminal justice reform. Often, the only difference between a violent and non-violent crime is fortuity. Some drug dealers or users get pinched and sentenced as non-violent offenders, while others are charged in conspiracies or fend off attempts to rob them and are consequently deemed violent. Some drug addicts use a not to rob a bank and are considered non-violent, while others even pretend to possess a weapon and are categorized as violent. Other offenses that may involve no actual violence, such as arson, weapons, and burglary are categorized as violent in most jurisdictions. Moreover, due to systemic racism, over-policing, and socioeconics, people of color and the poor are far more likely to be convicted of crimes categorized as violent than their white and wealthy counterparts. This reality means that when criminal justice reform advocates speak in terms of limiting reforms to “non-violent” offenses or offenders, it is a shibboleth for racism and discrimination, however unintentional, because it focuses on limiting relief to largely white and wealthy white collar offenders. I’m sure this isn’t your intention, but it is the result, and I feel it necessary to comment because we do need meaningful criminal justice reform in this country, and not just taken measures that continue the legacy of discrimination and inequality that got us here.
    Mark Jordan: Policy Advisor at Jordan Center for Justice and founder of


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