The State of Equality and Justice in America: The Presumption of Guilt

Congressman John Lewis and Bryan Stevenson | 5/23/2013, 9:32 a.m.
Innocent children are being victimized by a presumption of guilt that never sees black and brown youth as blameless, as ...

The presumption of guilt follows too many poor and minority children to school, a place where children should be nurtured and supported, not criminalized and incarcerated. Yet the pipeline from school to jail is so insidious, many parents now fear schools as much as they fear the criminal justice system.

In 2012, the Justice Department sued school officials in Meridian, Mississippi for systematically incarcerating black and disabled children for days at a time for minor dress code infractions like wearing the wrong color socks or talking back to the teacher. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, children have been expelled for giving Midol to classmates, bringing household goods to school for Goodwill donations and scissors to class for an art project. Recently, one black Florida during a science experiment.

Children as young as five years old are being led out of classrooms in handcuffs for acting out or throwing temper tantrums. They have been arrested for throwing an eraser at a teacher, breaking a pencil, and having rap lyrics in a locker. Black children constitute 18 percent of the nation's public school population but 40% of the children who are suspended or expelled.

In Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and a growing number of states, legally sanctioned racial profiling has been resurrected leading Latinos particularly, and other U.S citizens of color, to fear harassment, suspicion and detention.

In New York City between 2002 to 2011, 90 percent of the city's notorious 'stop and frisk' victims have been Black and Latino residents. In 88 percent of those stops, people of color were found to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

In the year when this nation will celebrate the Supreme Court's historic ruling to create a right to counsel for indigent people accused of crimes, protections for the poor and innocent are almost non-existent. In a courtroom, where justice should be blind, the presumption of guilt is especially dangerous. Today too many innocent prisoners like Taylor are trapped by systemic pressure to plead guilty in a system where 96 percent of all convictions are rendered by plea bargains.

The Innocent Defendant's Dilemma, a recent study, describes how the blameless, particularly those who are poor, find it an onerous, nearly impossible burden to prove their innocence. With few resources for defense, they find themselves trapped by a system that presumes their guilt. Since the odds seem hopelessly stacked against them, many innocent individuals reluctantly plead guilty to avoid the longest prison terms or even death. Innocent victims lose years in prison, face rejection because of criminal records, and many never reach their potential.

We have come a great distance in the last 50 years, but we still have not fully escaped the miseducation and distortions created by America's policies of racial injustice. These problems demand remedies, and we must admit this nation may require some form of therapy before we can freely reconcile ourselves to a better future informed by the truth surrounding present human rights abuses and those of the past.

Despite progress, in the last 50 years we have retreated from an honest conversation about racial and economic justice, and have opted instead for mass criminalization and incarceration leaving many poor and minority people marginalized and condemned. As Taylor's story reminds us, out of sight is hardly out of mind. It is an abysmal violation of human dignity.