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CIVIL RIGHTS AND THE “JUSTICE” (?) SYSTEM

Over the winter holidays, I re-read Michelle Alexander’s ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow.  While the book might not be the best formula for Yuletide cheer, it serves as a bracing reminder of the flaws in our law enforcement system.

Alexander forcefully demonstrates the inherent injustice in a system that is funded by politicians anxious to promote their “law and order” images, often permits the manufacture of probable cause in urban settings, and marks those swept up by it with a permanent stigma, often deprived of the right to a job, the right to vote, and even the right to receive public benefits.  The result?  Widespread mistrust of police in minority communities, routine use of excessive force by officers, massive overcrowding of prisons, and a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, and debilitating pressure on families.

Currently, there is some emerging recognition of these problems, including legislative action to decriminalize nonviolent drug crimes, re-entry programs for prisoners, and specialized courts to administer “diversionary” programs.  Even the media have begun to awaken to the problems.  60 Minutes, for example, recently featured a story on the devastating effects a wrongful conviction has on an individual’s life.

But it will be a long time before sufficient, system-wide reforms are implemented.  Until then, at least some victims have the imperfect, but still powerful, tool of litigation under federal civil rights statutes like 42 U.S.C. §1983.  Despite legal and judicial efforts to curb its scope and availability, §1983 can still provide some measure of compensation for those whose Constitutional rights have been violated through police brutality, false arrests or wrongful convictions.  If you believe you have been damaged by a violation of rights protected by the Constitution and 42 U.S.C. §1983, an experienced lawyer at Williams Cedar may be able to help.  You can read about our civil rights practice here.

By Gerald Williams, Esq.