Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
First and foremost, I am recording this from our brand new podcast studio, and we’re still a few weeks away from working out all of the kinks, so please be patient with us if you hear any background noise.
Today, I need to unpack and explain a very important concept — in great part because I want us to do some important work on it together later, but the idea is this:
The United States does not have one justice system or one legal system. We often talk about changing the system, but the truth is that it’s 30,000 micro systems.
And that’s good news and bad news. Today I wanna teach you something, ok?
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (The Breakdown)!
If you are listening to The Breakdown, chances are you want to reform the thing most people call “The Criminal Justice System.” In our community, we’re beginning to call it “The Legal System,” because it’s not really just and everybody who enters into it is not a criminal, but whatever you call it — whatever we call it — I need us to understand a bigger point:
It’s not ONE big system.
And because it’s not one big system with one set of rules, with one set of laws, and with one CEO, but instead is 30,000 micro systems — each with their own set of rules and laws and policies — it can’t be reformed or overhauled or even just torn down in one fell swoop. To change this system, it has to be changed, in many instances, one jail, one prison, one police department, one sheriff’s office, one DA’s office, one town, one city, one county, one state, one law at a time.
And I think this is both great news for us and also absolutely horrible news for us.
It’s great because while we might not be able to change the whole system, but we are strong enough to change parts of it, piece by piece, person by person, law by law.
Our organization, Real Justice, has helped to elect brand new District Attorneys in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, in Boston, in San Antonio, and in so many other cities across the country. And those DA’s are changing the game. We are able to do that because our organization set VERY specific goals, joined other organizations on the ground who share those goals, and we helped flip those positions over to women and men determined to change the game from the inside out.
Organizations and activists across the country are targeting individual police departments, individual jails, and are seeing some progress.
So the great news is that if you are determined and organized enough, you can change these micro systems in substantive ways that will impact tens of thousands of lives.
I have friends who chose to work with the Trump administration to change the microsystems in the federal government. While only about seven percent of all people are in federal prisons, they’ve been able to help over 3,000 men and women be set free from federal prison in the past few months alone under the First Step Act.
That’s the great news. That’s what happens when we focus and act upon the microsystems — we can change them.
Let me break down the systems we have (Break it down music):
We have 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as about 100 military prisons, immigration detention facilities. That means we have about 7,000 jails and prisons in this country.
We currently have 12,501 police departments. We have about 3,000 county sheriff’s offices. And we have about 2,500 other police departments — which includes campus police departments on college campuses, state police departments, and other law enforcement agencies – meaning we have about 18,000 different law enforcement agencies nationwide.
We have about 2,400 district attorneys. These are the locally elected prosecutors. Some places call them county attorney, others call them the states attorney. Either way, 93% of all court cases come through those 2,400 offices. You may have heard me say recently that of the 2,400 DA’s, 150 of them cover over 50% of all people who are incarcerated.
So let me do the math on the total number of systems there: 2,400 DA’s + 18,000 law enforcement offices + 7,000 jails and prisons – that’s about 27,400 systems. And if we add to that number, all of the different local, state, and federal agencies that fall outside of those three main categories — we end up with about 30,000 different law enforcement agencies in the United States.
What we’ve learned is that we have federal laws and state laws — but also county laws and city laws. For instance, in the city of Atlanta, which is actually just one small circle, in the much bigger map of metropolitan Atlanta, which is about 15 different counties, it’s now legal in the small city of Atlanta to possess a tiny amount of weed in your pocket, but if you take that tiny amount of weed to the next city or county over, which is still considered metro-Atlanta, you will have broken the law. If you take it to the airport you will have broken federal law, because weed is still illegal federally.
You see, just traveling around Atlanta with a little weed in your pocket is a highly complicated thing because we don’t have one system, but tens of thousands of smaller legal systems.
Now let me show you just how complicated it truly is. (Musical break)
The United States has 51,200 judges on the local, state, and federal level. And as you likely saw in the Amber Guyger case, each judge can run their courtroom in wildly different ways. While each judge has local, state, and federal laws to consider, they have huge leeway in how to run that court and how to interpret those laws.
We have over 1 million law enforcement officers across local, state, and federal departments. And, as we’ve seen, each of them interpret policies and laws in their own unique ways.
I said all of this to say that we can’t solve a problem we can’t describe. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t even know the equation. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t truly know how to describe it.
We need to be able to dig deeper — much, much deeper — and describe this problem better so that we can work to solve it. Today I just wanted to do this overview, because for the next few months, I am going to lead us in some ways to help proactively address some of our biggest challenges.
Thank you all for making it all the way through this episode of The Breakdown!
If you haven’t already subscribed to our podcast, we’ll be right back here every single weekday, breaking down important news stories and issues, and we’d love for you to subscribe on your favorite podcast apps like Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Please share this podcast with your friends and family. Our next goal is to get to 100,000 subscribers, and we won’t get there without you!
Thank you so much to the nearly 30,000 founding members of The North Star whose generosity even makes this podcast possible. Love y’all and appreciate you so much.
If you love this podcast and want to support our work — or want to see the show notes and transcript for each episode — we’d love it if you considered becoming a founding member of our community at TheNorthStar.com. There we not only have our podcasts, but hundreds of original articles and stories and commentaries from some of the leading scholars and thinkers and journalists in the world.
Lastly, a shout out to our Associate Producer Lyssandra and Podcasting Director and Senior Producer Willis for their hard work on this and every episode.
Take care everybody.
Produced by Willis Polk II