While studying social justice and organizing at the University of Minnesota and through the HECUA Metro Urban Studies Program, I have become conscious that change cannot happen so long as a majority of people think the current status quo is working just fine, that it is fair and just. The way the media talks about crime seriously contributes to people being content with the current criminal justice system.
I came into my internship with TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice 4 All program with the goal of keeping an open mind about racial justice and equality for people with criminal records. I did not realize that I would become outraged at the injustice and barriers facing people just like you or I who have forever been turned into second-class citizens because of a past mistake.
Did you know that the United States has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world? U.S. Senator Jim Webb analyzes this situation quite well:
“Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”
The U.S. approach to criminal justice is a serious problem that is far too often just accepted as a necessary reality.
So why do we have so many people locked up, and who are all of these “criminals?”
My work with TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice 4 All program on the Criminal Justice Media Project had me spending a lot of time looking at the news media’s coverage of the criminal justice system. As a result of this coverage, it’s no wonder that subconsciously many of us think that there are a lot of people to fear out there, people who we do not want to be a part of the rest of the society.
I have become aware that, particularly in relation to crime and people with criminal records, the media works as an instrument of oppression, injecting readers and viewers with fear, enabling people to automatically paint a picture of a horror story with a particular face on a suspect.
The word “criminal,” itself for example has such a scary connotation around it. When we hear the word criminal, we tend to think the worst of the worst. The truth is, every crime is unique, every “criminal” is a person, and everyone has a story that led them to where they are today.
Right now, more than 1 in 4 individuals in the United States has a criminal record. That means it is more than likely that someone you know, whom you most likely respect and care for, has a record. You may not even know that they have a record because they are not the person that is portrayed when you read the paper or watch the news- few people with a record are.
The people I have met through this work, most often have been just like anyone from the community, a person who treats me with respect and only wants to be respected. Yes, it might be a person who made a bad decision, but let’s be honest, we all make bad decisions. Fortunately most of for us — especially those of us who are white, educated, and economically advantaged, we didn’t get caught or managed to avoid punishment.
When the public has this image and idea of crime, it becomes okay to think these people are right where they deserve to be. For people with a criminal record, the consequences of this thinking affect every part of their life, not just today but for the rest of their life. It contributes to vast discrimination from housing and hiring practices. Not having stable housing or employment often leads to picking up more charges. The Twin Cities Metro area has one of the highest racial disparities in unemployment in the country. It is not hard to see how the two are connected.
Further, illustrating the criminal justice system this way has a much broader impact.
- It distracts us from the real crimes and issues we should be thinking about — those of corporate greed, political injustice, and structures of oppression –with minor crimes and fear about the members of our communities.
- It dehumanizes individuals with a criminal record and overlooks the bigger issues which account for both what contributes to the actual rate of crime and the reason for the striking number of people we are putting in our prison systems.
This makes it very hard to illustrate that our criminal justice system is a major source of racial injustice, retribution, and a cycle of recidivism and further, to make social progress for people with records. This issue is not just “theirs,” it’s ours.
As I wrap up my fall internship, I hope to carry with me the wonderful relationships I have gained with many people who do have a criminal record. I will continue to be involved with the work of TakeAction Minnesota and the Justice 4 All Program. I think it is important to make the connections between the fear projected by the media and that it is often part of a greater agenda.
Elsa van Gorp
Elsa is a student at the University of Minnesota. She spent the fall semester interning with TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice 4 All program through the HECUA program.