Congressman Elijah Cummings asked the key question at Freddie Gray’s funeral: “Did anyone recognize Freddie when he was alive?” He is right. What are we doing for the countless nameless and faceless young black men, women and children, who interact with the criminal justice system and law enforcement officers every day?
One of the lessons of Ferguson, North Charleston and Baltimore (among other places) is that minor crimes saturate courtrooms and drench individuals with criminal records that stand in the way of employment, housing, family stability and peace of mind. We must ask this question at each and every stage of the criminal justice system— a system that I define broadly to include all that relates to it. Law enforcement training, culture, accountability and transparency are all relevant to the question, as are the circumstances that lead to involvement with the criminal justice system and the impact of that involvement on individuals, families and communities. Most importantly, we must search for and work toward answers constantly and proactively, rather than in response to unthinkable yet sickeningly repetitive tragedies. The micro and macro issues behind these tragedies must be unpacked, examined and addressed.
Baltimore’s criminal justice system ran amok long ago. The same is true for the various systems in other cities and towns that have received attention and scrutiny in response to police killings and beatings of black men, women and children.
As many have learned in light of Freddie Gray’s death, Baltimore’s criminal justice system bears down on its black residents with particular might and fury: from street encounters between police officers and residents; to arrest; to excessive bail determinations that lead to and prolong pretrial incarceration; to the charges that are filed and force individuals to stand in front of judges; to the ease with which individuals charged with crimes can waive their right to counsel and be made to represent themselves at trial; to the fact that any encounter with the court results in a criminal record (even when cases are dismissed or result in acquittal); to the additional fact that each of these Maryland criminal records is plastered on the internet, available for anyone to look at, peruse and judge; to the stigma of these records on individuals long after their encounters with the criminal justice system; and to the everlasting impact of all of these experiences on Baltimore’s poor black residents as well as the neighborhoods into which they are clustered, such as Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester. For many of Baltimore’s citizens, the criminal justice system here is all encompassing and unrelenting.
The criminal justice system here is also unacceptable. For decades, individuals, families, communities, faith leaders and advocates of all stripes have pushed for meaningful change of all aspects of Baltimore’s criminal justice system in every possible venue. Baltimore’s criminal justice system— each and every aspect of it— has been studied and scrutinized at the local, state and national levels by courts and policy organizations alike. Thus, the wild array of issues is well known and well worn. Take criminal records for example. Several efforts aimed at scaling back the economic and civic hardships that stem from criminal records have been successful in recent years, as Baltimore’s City Council and Maryland’s General Assembly have passed laws that have chipped away at some of the unnecessary, counterproductive and simply mean-spirited aspects of these records. However, most of the work remains ahead, as it does in so many other areas impacting individuals, families and communities.
Freddie Gray’s death is a stark reminder of many things, including that holistic criminal justice reform is essential and, indeed, urgent. While reforming a particular aspect of the system is important, it does not have much of the desired impact if other aspects remain untouched. Thus, implementing measures to help individuals move past their criminal records enhances justice in significant and transformative ways, but these measures are blunted by the sheer numbers of individuals— overwhelmingly black and poor— who pass through Baltimore’s criminal justice system each year, who flood Baltimore’s courts, who are abused by the hands, feet, voices, nightsticks, vans, and guns of police officers and who, in so many ways, live with the micro-aggressions, the macro-aggressions and the stigma that lead to and follow these various experiences.
Michael Pinard is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and co-director of the Clinical Law Program. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ProfMPinard.