There is white privilege everywhere. Even in the justice system — especially in the justice system. I know, as a Black woman, that I live in a country and within a system that was not made for me. While I’ve never been arrested or sentenced to jail or prison or to probation, I know Black women who have: women like my mother. I visited her as a teenager when she was sentenced to jail and then to prison for drug crimes.
I promised myself after visiting her in jail the very first time that I would never follow in her footsteps. I am proud to say, I have not. But there are millions of Black girls and women who cannot say the same thing. Many of them should not even be in the system, but systemic racism has always existed — and will continue to, unless our society and our idea of what equality means undergoes a drastic change.
Obviously, we aren’t there yet. We are living in a time in which the same crime can mean two different kinds of punishment for a Black and a white person. Racism is everywhere, and is pervasive in the criminal justice system. Earlier this month, one white woman who embezzled $250,000 from a public institution was sentenced to two years of probation. For taking money that was entrusted to her, a quarter of a million dollars stolen for her own use, her punishment is to report to a probation officer and to “stay out of trouble” for two years. Reportedly, she stole the money to pay for her kids’ education “among other things,” one report says. Her name is Debbie Bosworth, a middle-aged white woman and the former clerk at a Cuyahoga County, Ohio-based utilities company.
Yet in the very same courtroom, on the very next day, a completely different scene played out. Though a different judge handed down the sentence, another woman guilty of embezzling — this time, $42,000 from a high school in Maple Heights, Ohio, in the very same county as Debbie Bosworth — received an 18-month prison sentence. It is reported that her embezzled funds went to support her gambling addiction. Her name is Karla Hopkins.
Their sentences are different. But so is their skin color. Yet their crimes, with the exception of the fact that the amounts they embezzled were different, were the very same thing. They took money that did not belong to them and used it for their personal use; both women’s actions were wrong. For the same crime, they should have gotten similar punishments — even, one would argue, a stiffer penalty for Debbie Bosworth since she embezzled substantially more than Karla Hopkins. Yet Hopkins is serving a prison sentence, while Bosworth is merely checking in with a probation officer from time to time.
The punishment of Black people, in particular Black women, is something that differs greatly from that of White women. Mass incarceration is a thing, and it’s alive and well in the United States. For years, millions of Black and Hispanic Americans have been locked up and given lengthy sentences which often do not fit the severity of their crimes.
The Prison Policy Initiative reported in 2019 that 231,000 women and girls were incarcerated in the United States, with half of those women and girls being held in local jails. Did you know that 80% of the women who are incarcerated are mothers? Imagine your kid having to visit you in jail. Perhaps you cannot imagine it, the shame, the fear, the loneliness of it all — but I know it well, as the Black daughter who visited her Black mom in jail.
There are organizations working very hard to pull back the unknowns of our justice system, to tell us what we don’t know or clarify what we assume to be true — organizations like The Sentencing Project, which works to address racial disparities in prisons. A report from The Sentencing Project reveals that since 2000, the incarceration of Black women has decreased while the incarceration of White and Latina women have increased. That said, Black women are still incarcerated at higher rates than White women. Black women are incarcerated at 83 per 100,000, while white women are 48 per 100,000.
While we are certainly living in a time when data is brushed aside and facts deemed irrelevant (thanks, anti-vaxxers and COVID conspiracy theorists), numbers do not lie. Let’s look at these, for instance: Of the over 330 million Americans who live in the United States, Black people make up 13% of our general population. However, when we look at what’s happening in jails and prisons, 40% of the incarcerated population are Black men and women. Per every 100,000, people 2,306 (Black people) versus 450 (white people) are arrested.
Let’s break this injustice down a little further, shall we? Systemic racism is not solely about our very broken correctional system from policing practices to sentencing. It’s about all of the other broken systems in our society: housing, employment, and healthcare. We have built systems in our country that have no other purpose but to keep people of color off of the track to being more successful individuals.
I don’t want to hear the bullshit excuse to perpetuate racism that I’ve heard way too much: “Oh, they can just get a job.” Sure, because jobs are being handed out at every turn. People who have not been set up from day one to succeed struggle more to accomplish things like getting a job and receiving a livable wage. Or the other things I’ve heard, like “Why don’t they just move to a better town for better opportunities,?” Yeah, okay – why aren’t good opportunities available for all in every town?
Just as we cannot excuse criminal behavior, we cannot excuse systemic racism. The more we ignore the injustices that happen every day in courtrooms across the United States, the more our own actions are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism. Did you know that if you’re convicted of a felony, it is incredibly difficult to get a job? Did you know that if you lie on an application (like, leave out that you were convicted of a felony), it can be considered a crime? So, do the math; if people who are incarcerated at higher rates are Black people, then people who are seeking jobs and can’t get one, are most often also Black people.
Debbie Bosworth and Karla Hopkins’ arrests do not surprise me. They both should have been arrested for their crimes. But the clear difference in their sentencing does not surprise me either, unfortunately. I know all too well, as a Black woman living in America even in 2021, that the law does not lean in my favor. I don’t need to watch another Ava DuVernay film (though I happily will) to know that my life, and that of my family’s, is not valued by our lawmakers. I don’t need to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson again to know that laws in this country need to change.
If the last year and half has taught us something, it is that we cannot make changes alone. We need everyone to do something to right these wrongs — because there are just too many women like Karla Hopkins behind bars while the Debbie Bosworths of the world go free.
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