When I saw an advertisement for 13th, I knew I would watch it, but it was regulated to the backburner because I wrongly presumed that it was a ‘history channel’ type story about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Boy, was I wrong.
Dehumanizing a Race
Instead director Ava DuVernay (Selma) explores the history of racial inequality inside the United States by demonstrating how other systems simply replaced slavery. These systems, from Jim Crow laws to lynchings, were new ways of dehumanizing African Americans, but the film does not focus on those historical systems — it is about the modern system used to enslave many Blacks — incarceration.
Calling on a divergent cast of characters she delves into the laws, policies and processes that turned America, which represents five percent of the world’s population, into a country where 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated live inside our jails and prison. That is a hard stat for me to fathom: One out of every four prisoners in the world are housed in our systems.
But They’re Criminals
People concerned about how we ‘got here,’ will walk away with a different view of the system because DuVernay effectively projects a much deeper understanding of the laws, policies and players that created this debacle. For example, one of the reason for the growing prison population is a disparity in laws. In the film, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich admits that the punishment for crack cocaine and cocaine should have been identical. But they weren’t, they skewed along racial lines.
The disparity is laws, the fact that 97 percent of all cases in the U.S. are now plea bargains, and the reality that a robust industry was built around criminalizing more and more behavior, is food for thought for Americans of all political flavors.
Although, the movie primarily deals with racial inequality, it does offer insight into one of the key reasons for public policy shift — an organization that writes many of our laws, It’s an organization most Americans have never heard of (ALEC). The film is worth watching for that segment alone since the people hired by voters to legislate have, in many ways, regulated that job duty to the private sector — introducing significant conflicts of interest to the process.
After watching the film I researched some information about the jail in Preble County where I live. In the mid-to-late 1980s, before the current jail was built, the local newspaper reported 15 inmates being housed locally. As I write this 74 people are housed locally.
Myriad reasons are given for the population increase, but there has most certainly been a shift in local court volume. In a 1986 article listing the month’s indictments, there were three indictments (one was murder). Last month, there was 21.
Another random sample of data shows that the Eaton Municipal Court (Eaton is Preble County’s only city) processed 32 traffic cases in January, 1985. In October, 2012, the EMC processed 382.
The local stats are interesting to me because we have experienced a sharp increase in court cases during the 30-year period despite our declining and aging population.