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Flaws in Our Justice System, Part I: Punitive Policies & Unbalanced Law Enforcement

This is Part I of a four-part series published by Wolf Law, LLC, which aims to highlight and discuss flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system. This series is meant to be informational only and is by no means an exhaustive list of every flaw or injustice. We hope examining these topics will help everyone (not just those entangled in the criminal justice system) bring awareness to disparities that adversely impact individuals, families, and the community at large.

Part I: Punitive Policies & Unbalanced Law Enforcement

Legislatures at the federal, state, and local level create the criminal justice system by writing the laws that prohibit certain behaviors, the penalties for violating those laws, and the processes by which individual cases are determined and sentenced.

Many of these laws have a disproportionate impact on minorities and communities of color. Below, the Denver defense lawyers from Wolf Law review some of the laws and policies that have led to unbalanced law enforcement, and, subsequently, mistrust in police and the broader justice system.

‘The War On Drugs’

In 1986, the media introduced the “crack epidemic” and mischaracterized crack as an entirely new, more addictive, more dangerous drug compared to powder cocaine. This introduction became what is commonly referred to as ‘the war on drugs.’

Chemically speaking, there’s virtually no difference between powder cocaine (a derivative of coca leaves) and ‘crack’ or ‘rock’ cocaine, made by dissolving powder cocaine and baking soda in boiling water and then cutting the resulting paste into small ‘rocks’ after it dries. In either case, these drugs produce similar physical and psychological effects.

People of color are imprisoned for drug offenses at rates that dramatically exceed their proportion of the drug-using population. Statistics show that African Americans are more likely to be convicted of crack cocaine offenses, (even though the majority of crack cocaine users are white), and white people are more likely to be convicted of powder cocaine charges.

Sentencing Guidelines in Colorado

In addition to problematic law enforcement tactics (i.e., racial profiling, police brutality, etc.) drug sentencing policies enacted in the 1980s introduced things like mandatory minimum sentencing, which dramatically impacted cases involving drugs.

For example, a first-time offender convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison. Conversely, you’d have to be in possession of 500 grams (just over a pound!) of powder cocaine to get the same five-year sentence, even though these drugs are nearly identical.

Federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenses were amended by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2007, but state mandatory penalties are still in place. Colorado is no exception.

Mass Incarceration

The U.S. prison population is the largest in the world. There are roughly 2.3 million adults and juveniles incarcerated in U.S. territories.

According to a recent report by the Vera Institute for Justice, “Growth in jail admissions as crime and arrests rates have fallen…strongly suggest that police enforcement has become an expressway to jail.”

According to the report, “For every 100 arrests police officers made nationwide in 2016—the most recent year for which data is available—there were 99 jail admissions. Twenty-five years ago, when crime rates and arrest volume overall were higher, the ratio of arrests to jail admissions was much lower—70 jail admissions for every 100 arrest.”

Law enforcement’s overreliance on street-level arrests has swelled our country’s jail and prison populations and fundamentally changed the way individuals and communities feel about police.

The Effects of Incarceration

Sadly, the effects of incarceration reach far beyond those held behind bars.

African Americans are roughly five times more likely than white people to be incarcerated. Yet, African Americans comprise a mere 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.

According to the NAACP, more than “one out of every six black men who, today, should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily American life”. Their absence impacts family structures and resources, local representation, and public policy.

Moreover, for those who are in prison, there is relatively little offered in terms of education, drug rehabilitation, or job training. This puts inmates, especially those serving long sentences, at a huge disadvantage upon release. Breaking the cycle of incarceration is particularly difficult for minorities, but especially black men.

Reducing the number of people in prison or jail and constructing new inroads for offenders to reconnect with their communities is the first step toward addressing racial and ethnic disparities within the criminal justice system.

The Celebrity Effect

Despite well documented racial and ethnic disparities within the criminal justice system, there are other groups that appear to receive special treatment under the law.

The average working-class American doesn’t have the resources or social clout afforded to celebrities, sport stars, or wealthy entrepreneurs. And many speculate that this alone can distort the application of the law in cases involving the rich and famous.

Take, for example, the recent investigation involving Denver Broncos’ star Von Miller.

According to recent messages revealed by Von Miller’s ex-fiancée, Megan Denise, Miller allegedly sent violent messages to Denise following news that she was pregnant. Denise, however, quickly recanted, but not before the Parker Police Department got involved.

“When domestic violence allegations are made in Colorado…the police HAVE to make an arrest…they have no choice,” said defense attorney and Court TV correspondent Jeffrey Wolf. But according to Wolf, this isn’t always the case when you’re a beloved, eight-time Pro Bowl player.

The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office said the case against Miller did not meet the standards of probable cause to support a conviction.

No changes were filed against Miller and the allegations and investigation appear to have had no impact on his career—Miller will rejoin the Broncos in the 2021 season for a guaranteed $7 million.

In a recent radio interview with Dan Jacobs on 104.3 The Fan, Wolf discussed the optics of the case and how Miller’s treatment by the DA’s office isn’t representative of a defendant’s experience when faced with similar allegations of domestic abuse in Colorado.

“Von Miller, like anyone else, is absolutely innocent until proven guilty…” explained Wolf. “So I’m not saying Von Miller did something. What I am saying is the DA’s office treated him differently than they would have treated any other defendant in our state.”

If wealth or fame is any indicator of who does or does not deserve equal treatment under the law…most Americans are certainly doomed.

Parting Thoughts…

Artwork depicting the Lady of Justice can be found throughout the world, and she is emblematic of our justice system.

Her blindfold: a symbol of impartiality and objectivity; the scale signifies that evidence must be weighed appropriately to arrive at reasonable conclusions; her sword emanates enforcement and respect.

But it would seem the blindfold has slipped from her eyes—her lack of impartiality and objectivity has worsened in the decades following punitive policy shifts, the proliferation of mass media, and the public’s insatiable appetite for fame and fortune.

As we endeavor to fix the many flaws and injustices that exist within the criminal justice system, we must also reckon with the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequalities that exist in all aspects of public life.

Wolf Law invites you to share your thoughts about Part I of this series online. For legal news, Court TV commentary, and much more, join the conversation on Facebook.