Human and Intercultural Relations
The Penal System
Prisons and jails serve the dual purposes of punishment and housing for those who have been convicted of crimes, and those who are awaiting trial. The main difference between the two institutions is that prisons exclusively house and punish convicted felons while those housed in jails could be awaiting trial or convicted of a misdemeanor. This important difference leads to a number of similarities, as well as differences in methodology. Sentencing is the process by which persons convicted of a crime are punished. Sentencing is a separate issue independent from arrest and prosecution. Sentences may include the death penalty (capital punishment), incarceration (jail/prison sentence), probation, fines and many other penalties. Those found guilty of committing a crime are punished by the legal system. Individuals are put before a judge for sentencing if the defendant pleads or is deemed guilty for a particular crime, or set of crimes. This is the penal system, in simpler terms. It is an American custom that everyone be innocent until proven guilty, and has the right to an attorney. Though it may sound fair, the penal system is not shy of flaws. Even the innocent are found guilty and there are indeed cases of injustice from authority figures. Since American society was first established; race, class, and gender have been important factors in society. It is the design of our social structure through systemic forms of inequality. It is so deeply engraved in our social construct that we find it more difficult to notice; resulting in entire groups of people being criminalized and victimized by unfair policies. Whether or not this issue is a major part of the penal system is the question. The penal system is designed to enforce the proper punishment for the correlated crime. There is a common belief, backed up by past occurrences that authority, as a whole, discriminates against minorities. In urban areas such as Jersey City, one can find different communities that generally hold a major race. For example, the Greenville area is known for its black community. It is also known as the most dangerous area in Jersey City. The Jersey City heights is known for its large Latino community; also a high crime area. “NYPD statistics show 96 percent of shooting victims are black or Hispanic and that minority groups represent 89 percent of all murder victims” (New York Daily News 2012). These numbers show that, marginally speaking, urban areas contain a high population of minorities; resulting in crimes committed by them.
The Problem What does this mean for the penal system? In my interview with police academy student Rocco Luciolla, he states, “Often times different races stick together. It’s more about comfort than anything else”. The reasoning behind this statement dates back to the start of immigration; you had your Italian community (now little Italy in NY), then your Chinese community (now Chinatown). Those are just large-scale communities; every city has that type of division. When police enter a certain part of the city, they have an expectation of the kind of criminal they will come across.
Minorities have the highest incarceration rates; specifically the African American population. And yet, in our society, aggressive law enforcement towards them is highly accepted. Why is this view accepted? Problems are kept behind closed doors, because the true issue, which is the lack of addressing poverty, is often overlooked. “The only social service available to many of America’s poor is jail when welfare and service programs are crushed.” (Silliman, 2010) Most tend to look at the statistical numbers and draw conclusions from them, but if we were to look at other factors that mere numbers cannot reveal, we will get a better picture of what is going on. These factors are social factors, such as