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Equal Justice Only An Illusion

February 19, 2007
Editorial
'Equal Justice' Only An Illusion

January 26, 2004

View as printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/26/04

I find it ironic that just three days after this nation commemorated the democratic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments for the wrongful incarceration of Marcus Dixon.

In the days surrounding Dr. King's birthday, I found myself traveling across the great state of Georgia in places I would never have ventured 40 years ago. I was in Stone Mountain, Albany, and Young Harris. I even delivered the Sunday message at the First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. I marveled that I had lived to see the day when I could walk, not just unafraid in these cities, but could actually be welcomed with open arms by people I had never met, people whose lives were transformed by the Civil Rights Movement.

I was impressed by the way the America I knew had changed, but I also told everyone who would listen that our work is far from done. There are doors that remain unopened and some that have slammed even harder shut. The case of Marcus Dixon presents the kind of harsh reflection we need to confront in America until we come to grips with what "equal justice under the law" truly means. Only then will we create the kind of legislative policy and legal practice that fully embodies the democracy we profess.

How could a young Georgia man with high academic standing, promise as a football star and a scholarship to Vanderbilt University be serving a 10-year sentence in a Georgia prison today? How could a young man acquitted of sexual battery be simultaneously convicted for the felony of aggravated child molestation? And why is the jury in the case so displeased with the sentence? Because justice was not served the day Marcus Dixon went to jail. We, as a nation, and Georgia, as a leading perpetrator, are using incarceration, not just as a means to punish criminals, but as a way to debilitate the lives of young men and women in America.

We must confront the fact that the United States is "the world's leading incarcerator," according to The Sentencing Project, as well as the research of the International Centre for Prison Studies. We jail more of our citizens than any other nation in the world, including all the nations you can think of run by authoritarian regimes, including Libya, Iran or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, including North Korea or China, and even Russia or South Africa.

We want to be tough on crime, no doubt. We cannot be free if wanton criminals are allowed to roam the streets. But we cannot have justice if we use incarceration as a "preemptive strike" against young people, primarily African American people, Hispanics and other minorities, who prosecutors label as future criminals.

How could a nation that says it stands for freedom and justice engage in the mass incarceration of millions of its citizens? The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights posed that very question in a hearing last June and respondents pointed to one pivotal, responsible factor-mandatory minimum sentencing. It is a weapon in the hands of prosecutors who decide to bring cases against primarily African American men and women that relegate them to jail cells for decades and strip them of all the civil rights we in the Movement faced death to ensure.

These men and women cannot vote, do not use public accommodations, are not looking for housing or equal job opportunities. They are hobbled for life, like Marcus Dixon will be if his sentence is not overturned, barred from full participation in our society, stigmatized, and stripped of their right to vote. And let's face it; young men who are sent to American prisons are more likely to return there, so these sentences become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says it well, "Minorities who violate the law are more likely to be targeted for arrest, less likely to be offered leniency and are subject to harsher punishment when compared to similarly situated white offenders....Much of the unfairness....stems from the perceptions of criminal justice decision-makers that (1) most crimes are committed by minorities, and (2) most minorities commit crimes." Although the facts actually do not justify this stereotype, these perceptions cause a disproportionate share of law enforcement attention to be directed at minorities, resulting in disproportionate arrests, disproportionate prosecutorial and judicial decisions and disproportionate rates of incarceration.

For the sake of justice, for the sake of what is right and what is fair, the Georgia Supreme Court should have a sense of righteous indignation in this case. The jury found Marcus Dixon innocent of all major charges. Perhaps the promiscuity of teenagers should not be condoned, but youthful indiscretion should not be punished in Georgia by ten years in jail, recision of the right to vote, and pointing a promising young man toward a future in jail.

There is a legal maxim that says, "Extreme law is extreme injury." Mandatory minimum sentencing is extreme law that is criminalizing millions of Americans who should be able to request leniency from a just system. The nation is watching Georgia to judge how far it has come. We must right the wrong we have perpetrated against Marcus Dixon and modify mandatory minimum sentences that rob Americans of the very civil rights we as a nation struggled so hard to attain.

The Honorable John Lewis
U.S. Representative
Fifth District of Georgia