Criminal Justice Reform in Michigan, and Elsewhere

This open letter is in regards to criminal justice reform, with emphasis on the state of Michigan, although most of the ideas presented below would apply across the country. Please share it with anyone who might be interested.

I have adopted two black children, which puts me in a unique position: the beneficiary of white privilege, and witness to the suffocating racism all around us. After the latest brutal murder of an unarmed black citizen, folks are protesting all over the country, but they honestly don't know what to ask for, which makes the entire exercise rather ineffective. Yes, they want officers to stop killing black people in the streets, but who can control a million men in blue? We need concrete ideas that will help. I have watched these horrors unfurl in my own home, and I have a few suggestions.

I hear ideas batted around about restructuring, they call it defunding but that is terrible from a marketing point of view, so I'll call it restructuring, the police force, so that other organizations handle mental health and homelessness, and those are great ideas, but I'm focusing on things we can do quickly, without retraining and reorganizing 900 thousand men. This is the low hanging fruit, so to speak - things we can do with the stroke of a pen - things that should be uncontroversial.

First some perspective. Why do we have three times as many people in jail now as we did in 1970, even after adjusting for the increase in population? Surely our generation does not suffer from a three-fold increase in criminal behavior. In fact, crime is on a decline. There must be some other explanation.

There are many contributing factors, but the primary force is a shift in the way we view criminal justice in the United States. In 1970, jail was for violent offenders - keeping dangerous people off the streets. Over the past 50 years we have shifted our thinking, at the hands of politicians in both parties, so that today, jail seems like an appropriate punishment for every infraction, no matter how small. We sleep at night, with our conscience suitably numbed, by telling ourselves that this acts as a disincentive, encouraging people to follow the rule of law - and anyone who does not follow these simple rules deserves their fate. We conveniently ignore the fact that most of these rules involve money, e.g. purchasing car insurance, and thus, poor people cannot possibly follow the law. We conveniently ignore the fact that some of these rules involve addiction, which is not a choice. Even if there were no racism whatsoever, this shift in policy would increase the prison population considerably . Combine this with the racism of the police and the judges, who enforce the laws unequally, and we have a million innocent black men in prison. That's 46 thousand nonviolent inmates in Michigan alone.

You might think riots are caused by a dozen black citizens gunned down by police, but no, black families all over America are already furious that their breadwinner is in jail for smoking weed, or something equally trivial, and they are on food stamps and welfare, and their children are growing up without a father. Prison does more than destroy the inmate; it disrupts the entire family, and the fabric of our society. Given our undercurrents of oppressive incarceration, George Floyd is merely the match that lit the can of gasoline.

Have you read Charles Dickens? He wrote about a country, 19th century England, that subscribed to unfettered capitalism, combined with strict adherence to the law.

“What a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men never repent; dead men never bring awkward stories to light.”
Oliver Twist.

The result was widespread poverty, with wealth concentrated in a powerful minority, and debtors prisons, and workhouses, as Scrooge references in A Christmas Carol.
“If they'd rather die then they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Dickens wrote these books so we would not make the same mistakes; perhaps we should read them again.

Ok, I said I would ask for specific measures. Here they are, in no particular order.

Our problems will not be solved by feel-good seminars and sensitivity training, (although those might help). We need to rethink and rewrite our laws, and change the way they are enforced, with an emphasis on "innocent until proven guilty". The laws change first, then hearts and minds change later. It has always been so. We had to have a bloody Civil War, because half the nation was unwilling to give up their peculiar institution. One hundred years later, nobody would dream of reestablishing slavery, but in 1861, we had to force half the states to free their slaves. In 1958 we abolished separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, and schools, sending federal troops to Alabama as needed, and now, 60 years later, these segregated institutions seem unthinkable. In this spirit, we must change the laws first, the laws that we grew up with, the laws that seem to make sense on paper, and then, 50 years from now, people will be shocked at the trivial offenses that use to lead to incarceration. People will be amazed at the pipeline that carried poor people to jail, all in the name of "personal responsibility". It is our job to change the laws today, and 50 years from now, the hearts and minds of the people will follow.

I hope the Michigan legislature, and governor, can take strong action, and gradually dismantle the criminal justice juggernaut that we have created over the past 50 years. Some things, such as mandatory minimums, must be addressed at the federal level, but most of the horror takes place at the state and local levels. We have the power to improve race relations here in Michigan, without waiting on other states or the federal government. This will lead to a better tomorrow.


Karl and Wendy Dahlke


This section is written by Mary Ellen Bennett, from her facebook page. It provides some much needed background.

In 1866, one year after the 13th Amendment was ratified (the amendment that ended slavery), Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina began to lease out convicts for labor (peonage). This made the business of arresting Blacks very lucrative, which is why hundreds of White men were hired by these states as police officers. Their primary responsibility was to search out and arrest Blacks who were in violation of Black Codes. Once arrested, these men, women and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco, sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines, or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them; prison labor.

It is believed that after the passing of the 13th Amendment, more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system. Explicit peonage didn’t end until after World War II began, around 1940.

This is how it happened. The 13th Amendment declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." (Ratified in 1865) Did you catch that? It says, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude could occur except as a punishment for a crime.” Lawmakers used this phrase to make petty offenses crimes. When Blacks were found guilty of committing these crimes, they were imprisoned and then leased out to the same businesses that lost slaves after the passing of the 13th Amendment. This system of convict labor is called peonage.

The majority of White Southern farmers and business owners hated the 13th Amendment because it took away slave labor. As a way to appease them, the federal government turned a blind eye when southern states used this clause in the 13th Amendment to establish laws called Black Codes.

Here are some examples of Black Codes: In Louisiana, it was illegal for a Black man to preach to Black congregations without special permission in writing from the president of the police. If caught, he could be arrested and fined. If he could not pay the fines, which were unbelievably high, he would be forced to work for an individual, or go to jail or prison where he would work until his debt was paid off. If a Black person did not have a job, he or she could be arrested and imprisoned on the charge of vagrancy or loitering.

This next Black Code will make you cringe. In South Carolina, if the parent of a Black child was considered vagrant, the judicial system allowed the police and/or other government agencies to “apprentice” the child to an "employer". Males could be held until the age of 21, and females could be held until they were 18. Their owner had the legal right to inflict punishment on the child for disobedience, and to recapture them if they ran away.

This (peonage) is an example of systemic racism - Racism established and perpetuated by government systems. Slavery was made legal by the U.S. Government. Segregation, Black Codes, Jim Crow and peonage were all made legal by the government, and upheld by the judicial system. These acts of racism were built into the system, which is where the term “Systemic Racism” is derived.

As mentioned earlier, explicit peonage ended in 1940, but implicit peonage began in 1970, as we developed new forms of mass incarceration. If even one black man rots in jail for smoking weed, or driving without car insurance, while performing labor at $9 a week, or accruing profit for his jailers or the courts, then peonage still exists.

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