Imagine this: you're a 50-year-old black man working as an assistant manager at a Gristedes in lower Manhattan, where you've worked for the past 25 years. It’s a typical evening: you close up the store and prepare for your long journey home to Harlem with a couple bags of groceries you bought for your family.
Once aboard an uncrowded A train, you set your groceries down next to you on one of many empty seats. At the 125th street stop, two uniformed NYPD officers board the train. They spot you, grab your groceries, dump them onto the floor, and place you in handcuffs. They proceed to take you to jail where you spend the night for the crime of "occupying multiple seats on a transit facility."
Many often characterize our criminal justice system as “broken.” The system is not broken — rather, it functions exactly as designed.
It is a well-oiled machine that fails to indict the likes of NYPD Officer Daniel Panteleo, who choked Eric Garner to death over cries of “I can’t breathe.” Yet it sends another man to prison for giving a single Xanax to an undercover officer who feigned withdrawal. These are not malfunctions or misfires, they are successes for a racist institution. Prosecuting, incarcerating, and disenfranchising people of color leads to perpetuating racial oppression, which is and always has been the purpose.
According to the NAACP, though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. If African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
District Attorneys prosecute poor people of color for jumping a turnstile or walking through an exit gate, possessing a minor amount of marijuana, ‘obstructing’ a park bench, or occupying two seats on an empty subway car.
For the past decade as a public defender in Manhattan, I've seen firsthand the oppressive system at work. I’ve watched as police officers have justified under oath unconstitutional stops and arrests, viewed video recordings of coercive interrogations, and seen line-ups that were fraught with inherent racism. District Attorneys utilize coercive plea bargaining, withholding of evidence, and trial processes that favor disproportionate sentencing over fairness, rehabilitation, and respect for a person’s humanity.
The system subjugates and criminalizes the very existence of black and brown people, attacks the trans community, remains disproportionately lenient on those who abuse their power over citizens, and regularly disenfranchises society’s most vulnerable populations. "Broken" is a mischaracterization that ignores the deliberate mechanisms that create countless inequities.
Sweeping reform needs to occur to ensure that the system really works.
Manhattan—with all our privilege, status, and wealth—ought to set an unparalleled example and eliminate every type of discrimination in our criminal justice system. However, we have already fallen behind Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and now Queens, with the likely election of Tiffany Cabán as the next District Attorney there. The grassroots forces that propelled Cabán to victory must come to Manhattan next.
The time for an equitable justice system in Manhattan is long overdue. Now is the moment for the borough to catch up and completely reimagine the justice system. To fight recidivism, crime, and assure real justice, we need to rebuild the system from the inside out.
A public defender, like Tiffany Cabán, is the only one in the courtroom who intimately grasps the trauma and indignities of what our system does to people of color and others who lack the means to hire private attorneys. Public defenders on the front lines have always known that our system is racist and classist. Presently we have two systems of justice, one for the wealthy, and one for the poor.
Right now, by electing public defenders as District Attorneys, we are finally seeing a movement to make sweeping changes, and we may have a chance to create a justice system that truly works.
Eliza Orlins is a public defender in Manhattan. On Twitter @eorlins.