This article originally appeared at TalkPoverty.org.
Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would investigate police practices in Baltimore in the wake of demonstrations sparked by the death of Freddie Gray. The next day the tragic story of Ronald Hammond appeared in The Baltimore Sun. Hammond grew up in foster care, suffered from depression, and became addicted to drugs. He was on probation for selling $40 worth of cocaine when he was caught with $5 worth of marijuana. For this minor infraction, Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays revoked his probation and sentenced him to twenty years in prison. Presumably, the judge believes this punishment is consistent with justice. The prosecution continues to defend the draconian sentence. Other than the public defender who is fighting for Hammond’s freedom, everyone else in the system seems to view Hammond as just another expendable life in Baltimore.
That the DOJ is now investigating the Baltimore shooting is a testament to the fact that the nation has suddenly awakened to the disregard that some police departments have for the lives of our most marginalized citizens. In Freddie Gray’s case, a cell phone video helped to publicize the abuse, and then widespread demonstrations forced public officials to pay attention.
But as egregious as the police conduct is in these killings of unarmed black men, it is routine injustice—the utter disregard for the humanity of those arrested and processed every day, often for minor offenses—that wreaks far more havoc on the poorest people in our nation. For every person killed by a police officer, tens of thousands are arrested and processed into prison cells. Ronald Hammonds flood our overflowing penal system, with 2.2 million people now sitting in America’s jails and prisons. They come out incapable of securing housing, employment, or educational loans. Many are not allowed to participate in the democratic process. They are literally rendered second-class citizens.
This routine injustice has destroyed countless lives, families, and communities. But we are so used to it that there is no sense of public outrage. And yet every day, judges, prosecutors, and elected officials help perpetuate this system, and there are no cellphone videos to record it or demonstrators out there demanding change.