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Regaining our Trust in Justice

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the Nov. 20, 1995, edition of The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

American society is steadily becoming more racially and economically polarized. Many poor and minority Americans are convinced, with good reason, that the basic system of justice and law enforcement is not fair.

When my three sons were in college, I knew they were experimenting with marijuana. This concerned me, but I was confident that an arrest would not destroy their lives. Ours was a prominent family. I knew the sheriff and judge would not want to send "one of the Carter boys" to the state penitentiary.

I also knew that if arrested on the same charge, our African- American neighbors would not have fared so well.

"Separate but equal" was the law of the land. Most church leaders "proved," through selective Bible verses, that God had ordained the superiority of whites. Yet during the early 1970s, there was a common desire--even competition--among governors to reform the system.

With Georgia's enlightened prison director, Ellis MacDougall, I visited the penitentiaries and met with incarcerated men and women. We found abominable conditions.

Almost invariably, the inmates were poor, most were black and 35 percent of them were mentally retarded. We uncovered many cases of convictions on false accusations, trials with inadequate legal counsel and confessions obtained under duress.

We established early-release and work-release programs. I personally recruited volunteer probation officers who were Lions, Rotarians, Kiwanians and members of other service organizations.

We gave thorough examinations to all incoming inmates to determine their existing and potential skills. We helped each one plan a career for the years in prison and afterward. Many governors embraced this approach.

During the past few years, we've gotten away from the concepts of societal forgiveness and reconciliation. Now it is more popular for a governor to boast of the prison cells built than of new school rooms.

And America now has the highest proportion of its citizens in jail of any country on Earth.

One of the most dramatic changes, initiated in California, is "three strikes and you're out," which eliminates any possibility of freedom for a three-time felon. My own state trumped this by imposing "two strikes and you're out," and Gov. Zell Miller is now attempting to limit exercise and similar "privileges" for prisoners.

Once again, shackled prisoners are working alongside the roads in Alabama, and visitors who stop to enjoy the sight can buy "chain gang" hats and other souvenirs.

These changes have been made because harsh treatment is popular with voters, but there is no indication that it deters crime.

With little chance for rehabilitation, hopelessness prevails in the prisons, where the rising sense of injustice and despair has led to an epidemic of revolts.

Deliberately or not, punishments are focused on black offenders. It is a troubling example of how the attitude and standards of a society can be modified by prejudice.

Nowadays, the Old Testament standard of "an eye for an eye" is not harsh enough. In biblical times, it was considered progressive: There was just one eye given for a lost eye, so the punishment could not exceed the crime. Today, in many cases, the punishment for some offenders far exceeds the injury resulting from the crime.

As was the case when racial segregation was the law, it is time for America's legal system to correct itself. Unfortunately, reform voices are muted.

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