Get Justice Out From Behind Bars

In London, on the 200th anniversary of the outlawing of the slave trade, I found the media focused not on the anniversary or on the war in Iraq or even on Tony Blair's leaving the world stage. What garnered the most attention this weekend were the travails of Paris Hilton. As in America, Paris Hilton's jail sentencing gets virtually 24/7 coverage.

What's most interesting about the Hilton saga is the light it shines on the unmentionable. Some argue that she should not have to do time in jail; that jails aren't the place for a person like her. Beautiful, young, wealthy white women, we are told, could be at risk in these jails.

Unspoken, of course, is the assumption that jails are meant for poor, young people of color, particularly young African-American males. And no country locks up as many of its young as the United States. For African Americans, the numbers are staggering. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, one in seven African-American males are currently or permanently disqualified from voting because of criminal charges. One in three young black males between the ages of 18 and 39 will spend time in prison, on parole or probation.

Is that because African-American men are particularly violent and murderous? No, 70 percent of the young people in prison are there for nonviolent crimes -- largely drugs, petty theft, alcohol or status abuses (violation of curfew, etc.). These are the crimes of the poor, the struggling, the left behind. This country chooses not to treat them, educate them or lift them up, but to lock them up.

Presidential candidate John Edwards was asked if he thought Hilton's treatment was proof that there are two Americas. Edwards honorably said he didn't want to get in the middle of the Hilton craze. But, of course, there are two Americas. The children of the affluent are tracked toward Yale. Their parents are committed and educated. They are taught to read when they are young. They are taken to museums. They see the world. They get preschool, after-school and summer programs.

For one in five children growing up in poverty, the world is different. Too often they live in one-parent households. Money is short; streets are mean. Their parent has little time and too often little knowledge about how to stimulate infants. These kids are often deprived of basic nutrition and health care. There are no books in the house. The TV is the baby-sitter. The streets are the summer program. They move from place to place, but don' t have a chance to see the world. They are tracked toward jail, not Yale.

No other industrial nation locks people up as America does. And no other industrial nation does such an abysmal job treating those who are arrested. The most successful jail program in terms of breaking the cycle of crime, and the revolving door inside and outside of prison, is high school and college education. Those who take advantage of jail-education programs have a much better shot at going straight when they come out. But funding for college-degree programs for prisoners has dried up.

Paris Hilton -- young, beautiful, wealthy and white -- has come into contact with America's criminal justice system. However discomfited, she has little to fear. She has lawyers, shrinks, reporters and fans. She'll be protected wherever she ends up. But literally millions of young men and women her age, charged with nonviolent crimes, will end up in that same system, without lawyers, without psychiatrists, without much hope. Hilton's scrape with jail will only add to her celebrity. For the poor, their time served will only dig them deeper toward the bottom. We can do better than that.

Jesse Jackson:

(c) Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group

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