Rebuilding a War-Torn America Series: Treat the Disease Not the Symptom

Looting, violence, crime, drugs, armed robbery, violence amongst ourselves, violence in our neighborhoods, reckless violence in our streets, VIOLENCE ringing in our ears day-in and day-out. 

The answer? THEY deserve to be prosecuted! Throw the book at criminals who are scum. They are beneath us and deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Crime is wrong. Looting is wrong. Violence is wrong, and those who do so should bear consequences and be PROSECUTED.

Believe it or not, this hardline approach is the easy way out, and does little in solving the real problem. This stance relieves leaders of responsibility because it creates a “bad apple” narrative that provides leaders with a hall pass. When in truth, our leaders are just as responsible for the current civil unrest just as much as the so-called criminals that they craft in public speeches, because of the lack of effectiveness in creating solutions that work to meet the needs of communities that are crying out for help. Zero tolerance prosecution has failed to curb the spread of violence and we have to face up to the reasons why prison and prosecution don’t work.

Incarceration is a permanent punishment for many Americans. Even after they’re released from prison, parole conditions require formerly incarcerated people to pay restitution, supervision fees, and other costs. Loss of employment and housing, threatened immigration status, and disqualification from welfare benefits, student loans, and certain licenses often condemn formerly incarcerated people and their families to lifelong poverty.

Equal Justice Initiative

Right now, there are over 2.2 million Americans in prison. We imprison a larger portion of our population than any other nation. Most of those inmates were convicted for nonviolent offenses, and most inmates will eventually get out. It’s easy to say, “Hey they committed a crime, be as harsh as you can so they learn a lesson and we can send a message.” But if we treat inmates poorly—by allowing them to be raped and beaten and told they are subhuman while being cut off from their families—and then we return those inmates to society, what, then, will happen to us?

Vice, A Former Inmate Talks About How Prisons Manufacture Criminals

As a Chicago native, this epic city that serves as a battleground for racial equity is an ideal example of the perfect storm that is sweeping across our nation–due to a thick mixture of worsened economic conditions for low-income Americans that our government has ignored since the establishment of this country and systemic racism that has impeded the advancement of minorities in the U.S. Yet, now the answer for those who have been not only abandoned by a system that has failed them, but has also prevented them from reaching their true potential–we, including other people of color, have decided that those who break the law should face the harshest punishments available for crimes committed. 

In 2020, Chicago has seen a 45% increase in crime. On August 10, 2020, Chicagoans woke up to gunshots and the aftermath of yet another widespread looting rampage that impacted the prominent Gold Coast, River North, and Magnificent Mile areas of town. This was a familiar replay of events that happened during the George Floyd protests earlier in the summer. Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and Police Superintendent, David Brown spoke of the fierce justice and plans to capture and jail lawbreakers. State’s Attorney, Kim Foxx was the only voice of reason amid calls for the severe prosecution of criminals. Foxx commented that we need to take a more in-depth look at the complex pre-existing conditions that have been ripe for escalated violence in the City of Chicago. Adding an economic shutdown that has decimated livelihoods and businesses on top of an already violent city is like placing a candle next to a keg of gun powder. The reality is that crime has been high in specific neighborhoods in Chicago, and nothing has been done because it did not usually impact affluent communities in the city. 

We have to stop and ask ourselves if our only ways of dealing with violence in the Black community by using zero-tolerance policies, three-strikes rules, mandatory minimums, or the War on Drugs method is working. The answer is a definite no. We also have to ask ourselves, why it is that if African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

The data reveals a problem that is beyond prosecution. In this case, prosecution is treating the symptoms of a greater disease that is ravaging America. People need hope, food, resources, education, good-paying jobs, and access to healthcare, which is inaccessible for many communities of color, and the issue of violence in Black neighborhoods is far beyond the simplistic notion of right and wrong. 

Black people were rendered as property, built this country, spilled literal blood, sweat, and tears into the soil from which we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. The thingification of black people is a fundamental component of the identity of this nation. Reckoning with this reality is significantly more difficult than wrestling with prejudice, racism, and even institutional or structural racism. And it does more than any of these concepts do to help us make sense of over 400 years of black suffering — of our unremitting interminable pain, rage, and exhaustion.

Dr. Kihana Miraya Ross, The New York Times, Call it What it Is: Anti-Blackness

Now, the position that I’m taking here is a very complex one. But to understand what I’m saying, we have to take away the concept of punishment and brutality that America was founded on. 

  1. I believe in justice, safety, accountability, and protection. I do not believe that the law should be used to punish people. 
  2. I believe that those who cause harm to humanity have to be dealt with. But this should not be a one size fits all measurement. We have to look at things such as mental health, other extenuating factors, and seek to rehabilitate people. Example: Cyntoia Brown who was serving a life sentence for killing a man when she was 16 years old after being allegedly forced into prostitution.

The following list that’s been compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides a perspective on the work that needs to be done just in the prison system. This includes: 

  • Reduction in Incarceration
  • Improvements in Conditions of Confinement
  • Emphasis on Rehabilitation and Treatment Programs
  • Halt Transfers of Child Offenders to Adult Facilities: Children locked up in adult facilities are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually attacked and twice as likely to be assaulted by staff than juveniles confined in a juvenile facility. 
  • Attention to Concerns of Female Prisoners
  • Decriminalization of Mental Illness: Ten percent of adult inmates and 20 percent of juveniles are known to suffer from severe mental illness. Correctional institutions have replaced mental hospitals as the largest warehouser of this community. 
  • Elimination of Private Prisons


Much work is left to be done. What will solve the violence problem and civil unrest in Chicago and America is not more prosecution. It’s rebuilding communities and lifting the barriers that systemic racism has imposed on people of color. This is not a new and radical concept. Senator Bernie Sander’s has been a champion of reform in this area, and his Justice and Safety for All Plan says it best.  

  • End for-profit greed in our criminal justice system, top to bottom by: by banning for-profit prisons and detention centers, ending cash bail, and making prison and jail communications, re-entry, diversion, and treatment programs fee-free.
  • Ensure due process and right to counsel by vastly increasing funding for public defenders and creating a federal formula to ensure populations have a minimum number of public defenders to meet their needs.
  • Cut the national prison population in half and end mass incarceration by abolishing the death penalty, three-strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, as well as expanding the use of alternatives to detention
  • Transform the way we police communities by ending the War on Drugs by legalizing marijuana and expunging past convictions, treating children who interact with the justice system as children, reversing the criminalization of addiction, and ending the reliance on police forces to handle mental health emergencies, homelessness, maintenance violations, and other low-level situations.
  • Reform our decrepit prison system, guarantee a “Prisoners Bill of Rights,” and ensure a just transition for incarcerated individuals upon their release.
  • Reverse the criminalization of communities, end cycles of violence, provide support to survivors of crime, and invest in our communities.
  • Ensure law enforcement accountability and robust oversight, including banning the use of facial recognition software for policing.

I believe that Black leaders must stop calling for further and severe prosecution of minorities and start doing the harder work of rebuilding communities. Treat the disease and not just the symptoms.

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