Welcome! I am honored you are joining me on this mission to better understand and engage in a deeper conversation about the criminal legal system and criminal law.
We begin at the beginning . . . wait, where exactly is the beginning?
I’m going to be honest—knowing where to start in order to wrap our minds around the unwieldy criminal legal system and criminal law is tough—even for those of us who study and work in the system every day. Why? Because there are 400+ years of U.S. history (not to mention what got imported from England!), many systems, many actors, many modes of delivery and much shapeshifting all entangled and intertwined. Each and every one of these things matters and requires our attention, yet where the beginning is, exactly, is hard to discern.
To put it simply, the criminal legal system is a bit like walking into a spider web. It feels like it comes from everywhere, wraps around everything, and, once you’re in it, is nearly impossible to extricate yourself from it. You didn’t see it before you walked into it, but it was there waiting for you to notice—in plain view the whole time. For those of us with white and wealth privilege, it may only be noticeable when the light hits it just right, because it thrives in just the right amount of shadow and mystery.
Even minutes later, you may be pulling the web out of your hair, eyelashes, shirt. That web was carefully constructed and tended to by its creator. It existed before you arrived and the spider will carefully re-construct and re-create the web after you pass, even as some of its strands remain wrapped around your skin, hair, and clothing.
Imagine each strand of that web being made up of different systems, such as history, laws, policies, intents and purposes, pools of money, ideologies, narratives and stories, communities, and individuals. Each strand in the collection of entwined strands serves to reinforce, uphold, and strengthen the others.
Like a web, the criminal legal system is an interdependent collection of strands that replaces what was taken or changed with new strands, often making the web even stronger and more difficult to destroy than before.
Over centuries, these interwoven systems have been carefully and intricately woven by primarily white lawmakers, politicians, lobbyists, wealthy donors and moneyed interests. Spiders have eight legs that give it the mobility to keep expanding, replacing and re-weaving the web. And, just as the spider, white supremacy and racism, implicit biases and dog whistle narratives, social control, wealth, power and greed, indifference, ignorance, fear and conscious or unconscious incompetence are the agile legs that enable those weavers to keep expanding and shifting the criminal legal system and the law.
In sum, the criminal legal system and the law are human constructions. It requires human action to maintain and proliferate it. And, it will take collective human action to change it.
So, we begin with the nuts-and-bolts and build from that foundation:
What I am endeavoring to do here, to the very best of my ability, is to pull apart the various strands of the criminal legal system without losing sight of the whole web.
To get us all on the same page and to give us a strong foundation as we start delving into the gnarlier issues, I am going begin with the basics—an outline of the law-making process and legal system procedure, including:
Legislatures and enacting criminal laws
Law enforcement and arrests
Arrests/arraignments (the start of the legal process) through sentencing (the end of the legal process . . . kind of, but we will get to that!)
Incarceration/Probation/Other forms of surveillance post-conviction
Reentry (including Parole) and the many collateral (accompanying related) issues
Once we get through the nuts-and-bolts of how it all works, we can delve more deeply into why it works this way, how we got here, and the many intersecting systems that reinforce and fuel this system as we now know it. We will build layers on top of a sturdy foundation. Then, we can begin engaging with those who are imagining something different with a new understanding.
What to expect from your bi-weekly newsletters:
I am thinking of these newsletters as a short bi-weekly magazine, of sorts; I want to make sure that I am brief enough—because I know you’re all busy—but detailed and nuanced enough to keep you fully informed. Please let me know how the format is working for you!
The bi-weekly newsletters will have the same components to start:
Key terms: Definitions and an explanation of where and how you might see the term used
Nuts & Bolts: What is this thing? How is it working right now?
Context: What made this thing? Why is it here?
Intersections: What other people, places, or systems contribute to or interact with this thing? In what ways do they contribute or interact?
History: Where did it come from? How has it changed over time?
Impact: Who made it and why? Who is most impacted by it and why?
Resources: High quality, thoughtful articles, books, news segments, podcasts, etc. on the topic
Commentary: On certain topics, I will include my own commentary, analysis, and interpretation of the topic
Some of you have reached out and asked if there will be additional offerings with the newsletter, like a podcast or conversational spaces. The answer is: I hope so! I really want to expand my offerings as I expand this community, one step at a time. Stay tuned!
Making sure we are on the same page
When I talk about the criminal legal system, I am using it as a catch-all phrase, or a description of the criminal legal ecosystem, that includes:
the court systems and their actors (judges, prosecutors, public defenders, etc.)
the prison industrial complex (pretrial, correctional facilities, etc.), and
post-conviction and re-entry entities (e.g. probation and parole)
The other major thrust of this newsletter is criminal law. When I discuss criminal law, I am thinking about both the stuff in writing, as well as the humans who drafted, voted on and enacted the laws at the local, state and national levels.
A critical thing to remember as we learn together is that all of this is human made. The law and the legal system are living, breathing organisms that change regularly, often in a reactionary fashion.
Intersecting systems and actors are those systems and people that engage with the criminal legal system, including, but not limited to:
child protection services
mental health services
legal education (i.e. law schools)
I am also working on a glossary that will be on the Substack site soon so you can access it at any time.
What this newsletter is and is not:
For me, it is really important to focus on the systems and systemic actors—those who are sanctioned by our government, and by many of our votes/financial support, to act on our behalf and exert power over individuals and communities. I am focused on the systems and those who work within it, support it, enforce it, and act upon others with permission from it. (I.e. what I outlined above).
To do this with honesty and rigor, I will grapple with white supremacy, racism, colonialism, sexism, economic disparity, and many other oppressive organizational paradigms, ideologies, and structures as key animators of and critical intents and purposes upholding these systems. We cannot do justice to this work of understanding, uncovering, highlighting, and learning about the criminal legal system and the law if we do not address what are, in fact, their primary organizing forces.
Author Chimamande Ngozi Adichie gave an incredibly important TedTalk called, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she stated clearly the values that I hold dear in the creation this newsletter:
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story . . . Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
Much of the popular discourse around the criminal legal system and the law has begun at “secondly” and builds from that place. Despite current events, that single story has largely remained the same.
By focusing on the system and those who help(ed) create and maintain it, I am starting with “firstly.” As such, what I will not do in this newsletter is pathologize, criminalize, or blame those who have been most harmed by the criminal legal system. I will not begin at “secondly.” While I will do it imperfectly and I undoubtedly have blindspots, I will not contribute to the damaging myths and dog whistles that have enabled this system to thrive and grow.
Looks great, Amy! Now what?
I invite you to join me on this mission to think and feel (yes, I said feel!) our ways into the depths and breadths of this system with openness and curiosity, and likely, more than a few deep breaths. We will explore and learn together.
The first edition of the newsletter will be out on June 1st, focusing on the federal Constitution: what it is and what it isn’t.
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Let the learning begin!