Friday, January 15, 2021

The Seeds of Justice

Dallas is having to face its own demons as communities across America are examining the ongoing issue of police violence against minorities. (Joe Brusky / Flickr ) (CC BY-NC 2.0)

By: Julius E. Jenkins, NDG Contributing Writer

Criminal justice implies people hurt by criminals receive some peace – comfort – resolution because the criminal gets a punishment fair or reasonable to the criminal act. But too often this isn’t the case. Too often, criminals don’t get what they deserve. Therefore, reformers argue for the need for reform in our criminal justice system with this inequity in mind. 

There are many pieces to “criminal justice reform.” Some goals of reformers include rehabilitating police departments, reducing the US prison population and overcriminalization by curtailing prison sentences, and altering drug sentencing policies. Reformers believe the primary contributor to mass incarceration is the excessively severe sentencing resulting from nonviolent offenses.

Another look at the Guyger case

Take Amber Guyger, found guilty of murder – not criminally negligent homicide, or involuntary manslaughter, but guilty of intentionally causing serious bodily injury that caused the death of Botham Jean – by a jury of our peers. 

In case you missed it, on September 6, 2018, Guyger entered Jean’s apartment -mistaking it for her own- while Jean sat on his couch, eating ice-cream. Guyger fired her gun twice, hitting Jean once. She testified she attempted first aid; however, the evidence showed no blood found on her uniform. 

This incident haunted Dallas County for more than a year. Dallas police officers swarmed the apartment. According to testimony at the trial, they worked to assist Jean and simultaneously undermine the crime scene. Pundits argued both Guyger did nothing wrong while others called for her to rot prison for life.

Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall, to her credit, patiently waited 48 hours before responding. She investigated the facts and procedures of her officers, then eventually fired Guyger. Reports indicated the Jean family was not satisfied merely with Guyger’s termination. They persisted – angrily fighting for a murder conviction and an appropriate sentence. 

After the sentencing announcement, people outside of the courtroom cried out the loudest. Across Dallas County, the state, our country, and the internet, people expressed outrage at the injustice of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the Jean family articulated that while they desired a stiffer sentence, they also accepted the jury’s decision. Note – jury, not the judge. 

Reports specified Bertrum, Botham’s father, said, “If you will not forgive, neither will your Father forgive you. I don’t want to see her rot in hell. I don’t want to see her rot in prison. I hope this will help her to change and recognize the damage, the hurt that our family’s going through. So I wish her well, and I will pray for her family and pray for her as well.” 

Brandt Jean, Botham’s brother, went viral when he asked to hug Guyger during his victim statement. The family’s expression of the hope of reform for the criminal responsible for their loss was from a place of acceptance, love, and prayer. A wise man once said, “Anger is like the mud. But without the mud, we cannot grow lotus flowers.” The Jeans then are master gardeners. 

According to the Justice Policy Institute’s report entitled “The Punishing Decade,” the US prison population exploded in the 1980s after President Richard Nixon declared America’s “War on Drugs” in 1971. The passing of the Sentencing Reform Act (“SRA”) in 1984 exacerbated these efforts. The number of prisoners exploded from approximately 500,000 in 1980 to over 2.5 million by 2008. Dig this – that’s the total population of Dallas County. The numbers reflect a 500 percent increase from the 80s. 

Dallas County efforts at reform

 Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot is known as a reformer. Recently, Cruezot announced reforms to limit the prosecution of low-level misdemeanor crimes, like marijuana offenses and theft of personal items worth less than $750, unless the theft is for financial gain. However, meaningful reform is controversial, and realization can be messy. The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, criticized Creuzot, saying his “actions…abandon the rule of law and could promote lawlessness….” But the facts remain – something must be done. 

Creuzot’s other efforts include “deflection centers,” places to keep homeless persons with mental illness issues who commit these low-level, nonviolent offenses. Reformers are starting to impact the prison population and the well-being of citizens unable to afford court costs. 

The Jean family’s response to the murder of their son is meaningful – wanting a finding of murder and although frustrated at the lenient sentence by a jury, expressing a willingness to forgive and move forward as best as they could. 

If Dallas County were to take away anything from this episode, it should be that while inequity exists, reform advocates are at work.

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