Is the Criminal Justice System Just and What Do We Do if It's Not?

In the last three months, the United States has executed eight people. Prior to their executions, these individuals collectively served over 100 years on death row. They contribute in number to the 1,421 individuals who have been executed by the United States since 1976.

Kelly Gissendaner served 16 years on death row for successfully planning to kill her husband in the late 1990s. Since her trial and sentencing in 1998, she admitted to her part in her husband's death (a boyfriend was convicted for the actual murder), received a degree in theology, and reconciled with her children. Together they fought her death sentence. Her execution continued despite public and private appeals from her children, a letter from Pope Francis, national concern over the efficacy of execution drugs, and vigorous public support. Protests outside courthouses and prisons, even rousing support from social media--adorned with hashtags like #kellyonmymind--failed to alter the sentence of the court. Kelly Gissendaner was executed on September 30, 2015, just after midnight.

Kelly's story is poignant because it is a tale of hope and reconciliation despite the triumph of a solid and unyielding system of justice. Kelly was executed by the United States as a normal proceeding of our system of justice. A system that too often ignores or inhibits rehabilitation and reconciliation when it should be encouraged, facilitated, and celebrated. Does the prioritization of retribution over reconciliation produce justice?

Hesitations about the justice system in America are not confined to the death penalty. Awareness in our nation regarding inequalities in the enforcement and sentencing of crimes continues to grow. Movements like Black Lives Matter are gaining momentum. Articles about the presence of law enforcement in schools and the overwhelming prison population are appearing with increasing frequency in prominent news outlets.

These concerns don't start at the prison fences. They point to larger issues of economic and racial injustice in our nation.

Scholars and writers have attempted to tackle the origins, manifestations, and implications of mass incarceration in and for the United States. (Here, I would be remiss if I did not mention a recent article in The Atlantic, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.) Their inquiries have resulted in countless publications, theses, suggested solutions and disheartened conclusions.

The collective work of these writers details a large and complex system of conviction and incarceration. A system we look to for "justice." A system that boasts a body count. I think it's time we begin to seriously question if Justice is truly the result of such a system.

While it may be terrifying to consider that the answer to this question could be "no," resounding or with reservations, those who answer in the negative are not alone. A growing lack of confidence, and even full-out disdain, for the criminal justice system in America makes identifying opportunities for change increasingly critical. For too long we've prioritized "peace" over justice, locking our "problems" away instead of acknowledging their human face and asking our fellow citizens what they need and how we can work together to make things better.

It's been demonstrated time and time again that the trends and tenets of mass incarceration in America are regrettable and wrong. But regret and condolences are not enough. We must change the way we think about policing, crime, criminality and prisons in America. People are dying every day we don't.

Fortunately, as awareness grows, so do opportunities for reform. Admirable nonprofits and leaders are putting their full weight behind advocacy for individuals in the system, more holistic approaches to justice (like restorative justice practices), and pressuring for policy changes. Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, delivered a widely viewed TED talk discussing the impact of mass incarceration on American culture. The Southern Poverty and Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union champion reform of the criminal justice system. As citizens we can support and multiply the efforts of these devoted nonprofits and advocates. We can build on the momentum already at play to ensure positive change. Together we can create a criminal justice system that does not exacerbate inequalities and acknowledges that we are all more than our worst acts. We can create a system that truly produces Justice.