Op-Ed: Justice Reform Starts on the Street

Photo courtesy of Yossi Gestetner

(By Yossi Gestetner). Last year late July, Newsday reported that “Raynette Turner, 42, an African-American mother of eight, was taken into custody on a Saturday afternoon and “accused of petit larceny from a food wholesale store.”

She had been put into a holding cell to await arraignment that week but was rushed to hospital the following Sunday between 7:30 and 8 p.m.after complaining she didn’t feel well, according to the newspaper. Turner was treated for high blood pressure, and she returned to her cell after 10 p.m. By Monday at about 2 p.m., she was found dead, Newsday reported.

Lohud reported in October that “Turner’s death in police custody was a result of an enlarged heart and ‘chronic use of cocaine and morphine,’ an autopsy has found.”

The law enforcement community certainly breathed in relief after the autopsy was released because there are some who claim that law enforcement suffers from widespread, chronic racism. To me, however, the case of  Turner — and the many others who had a similar fate since then while interacting with law enforcement — speaks to a larger issue. Namely, how, when and for what reasons people are arrested with painful — and at times fatal — consequences not necessarily due to a bad acting officer of the law.

Think of it: Is petty shop lifting by a 42-year-old mother of eight (at a health food store!) a bigger menace to society than someone with multiple motor vehicle violations? In the latter case, the driver is mostly let go with just a summons to appear in court on a later date. The mother, however, would have been under arrest from Saturday afternoon until sometime Monday midday to see a judge had she not died Monday early morning. A 42-year-old parent with emotional, health, and financial problems does not need to be locked up over a “petit larceny” charge from a darn health food store. Of cours,e she panicked. Of course, she felt unhealthy and then tragically died, leaving eight orphans. How would you feel if your life comes to a halt with your children running around unsupervised?

There is a concept that stopping petty crimes lowers felonies, but we have to be smart about it; we have to make sure people do not get tangled up or die in the system because of it. Just recently, The New York Times  reported that a Brooklyn man in his 50s was arrested four separate times because there was the same outstanding warrant for his arrest for… trespassing. Earlier this year, NPR reported that there are 1.4 million outstanding arrest warrants in New York City. This is the equivalent of 20% of the city’s adult population.

The haste to lock up people can be said on driver’s license issues. If you are pulled over when your license is suspended, your car can be impounded and you will be taken away in handcuffs. Now, if someone ran up points and the license becomes suspended, by all means get the driver off the road. Have someone pick up the driver at the police station or in certain cases make the driver stand in front of a judge right away. Your license can be suspended, and you can face the same treatment simply because you mishandled a ticket. How is this a sane system?

One of the strongest challenges to reform the law-enforcement, judicial and correctional systems is that a large part of activism is based on the accusation that these institutions are inherently corrupt or totally racist. While there have been many instances of corruption and racism, the people who make up these institutions reject such a notion and thus oppose reforms because accepting reform in this context is an admission of widespread corruption or racism. Such a tone from activists generates stiff opposition to reform and as a result the problems persist. Who suffers the most? People of limited means, people who can’t ring up the best attorney at a moment’s notice.

For activists to force reforms in “the system,” they need to start with changed governing the street. Namely, if less people are arrested because of changes in the law, fewer people will get caught up in a broken judicial and correctional system on all levels of government. Secondly, but more importantly, reforms need to be based on the thinking that “the system” is wrong — not that the people making up the system are wrong. Doing so will help build a strong coalition between the activists and the people making up the law-enforcement community. This would force legislators on state and federal levels to correct what some people think is the best justice system in the world.

For more from Yossi Gestetner, go to YossiGestetner.com.

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of JP.

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04/14/2016 2:01 AM by JP Newsroom

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