Closson: Expand criminal justice reform, activism beyond policing

Troy Closson , Opinion Editor

Growing up, my parents consistently talked to my younger brother and me about the realities of being black men in this country and the importance of being aware of our actions. I still remember in eighth grade when they sat us down to talk after Trayvon Martin was killed. I knew it was important, but at the time, I barely grasped the deeper issues and didn’t realize how significant they were.

In middle school, I was under the impression that violence against black men and women was the biggest race-related issue in the country. I’d heard about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and many other victims of police brutality. When Freddie Gray died and the Baltimore “riots” erupted 20 minutes away from my hometown, my high school devoted entire class periods to process and talk about what was happening. I started thinking that in the future, I’d work to support police reform — whether through reporting on criminal justice issues or getting involved in policy — and make a big impact on black communities affected by these problems.

What I didn’t realize, however, was that far beyond policing, so many other race-related issues exist within the criminal justice system. I didn’t know many of today’s issues had historical roots and could be traced to the criminalization of black people throughout time. I wasn’t aware that discrimination expanded beyond police stops or arrests. Black people were also disproportionately impacted at nearly every stage in the system — receiving longer sentences for the same crimes, being more likely to receive plea bargains as defendants that include jail or prison time, among other disparities. Or that this also continues in prisons themselves: black people are widely overrepresented in solitary confinement and more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and receive the death penalty than whites. Even more broadly, I didn’t realize that so many other problems exist within criminal justice itself, like the lack of resources and funds devoted to public defenders.

In conversations about criminal justice reform, it’s easy to focus on policing issues — and there’s clearly value in doing so. They’re real, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have these conversations. We’ve seen how powerful speaking up can be — action after Trayvon Martin’s death sparked dialogue about policing that led to the start of the Black Lives Matter movement and continues today. Colin Kaepernick was recognized Monday as GQ’s “Citizen of the Year,” largely for his activism and NFL protests last fall regarding police brutality against black people.

As such, much of this dialogue has surrounded issues with policing, rather than also addressing other equally important problems. Improving policing through education, training and implicit bias recognition — while still necessary and important — seems to receive much more attention than other areas contributing to mass incarceration. Chicago aldermen, for example, recently voted 48-1 in favor of a plan to build a new $95 million police training facility, but other systemic problems remain unaddressed.

Yes, this can all be valuable and lead to important changes. But even if all the police in the country were perfectly trained, race-related issues would still exist at nearly every other point of contact within the criminal justice system. And thus, conversations about reform can’t be limited to policing.

Many issues within the criminal justice system don’t receive media attention and might not be on everyone’s radar. But a lack of news coverage doesn’t mean these issues don’t exist and impact communities.

For real changes to occur, the criminal justice system has to be looked at as just that — a system, with different parts. Even within policing, it is essential to address more than just police brutality or violence and constantly look deeper at the structural and systemic issues affecting police departments. Criminal justice activism and reform efforts — on all levels, from NU to Washington — must address other issues within the system. When policing becomes the sole focus, those impacted by other problems don’t receive the attention and care they deserve.

Troy Closson is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.