Home Editorial State of Equality and Justice in America: The Presumption of Guilt

State of Equality and Justice in America: The Presumption of Guilt


Children as young as five years old are being led out of classrooms in handcuffs for acting out or throwing temper tantrums. They have been arrested for throwing an eraser at a teacher, breaking a pencil, and having rap lyrics in a locker. African-American children constitute 18 percent of the nation’s public school population but 40 percent of the children who are suspended or expelled.

Profiling Legalized

In Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and a growing number of states, legally sanctioned racial profiling has been resurrected leading African-Americans particularly, and other ethnic minority U.S citizens, to fear harassment, suspicion and detention.

In New York City between 2002 to 2011, 90 percent of the city’s notorious “stop and frisk’’ victims have been Black and Latino residents. In 88 percent of those stops, ethnic minorities were found to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

In the year when this nation will celebrate the Supreme Court’s historic ruling to create a right to counsel for indigent people accused of crimes, protections for the poor and innocent are almost non-existent.

In a courtroom, where justice should be blind, the presumption of guilt is especially dangerous. Today too many innocent prisoners like Louis Taylor are trapped by systemic pressure to plead guilty in a system where 96 percent of all convictions are rendered by plea bargains.

‘Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma’

The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma, a recent study, describes how the blameless, particularly those who are poor, find it an onerous, nearly impossible burden to prove their innocence. With few resources for defense, they find themselves trapped by a system that presumes their guilt. Since the odds seem hopelessly stacked against them, many innocent individuals reluctantly plead guilty to avoid the longest prison terms or even death. Innocent victims lose years in prison, face rejection because of criminal records, and many never reach their potential.

Human Rights Abuses

We have come a great distance in the last 50 years, but we still have not fully escaped the miseducation and distortions created by America’s policies of racial injustice.

These problems demand remedies, and we must admit this nation may require some form of therapy before we can freely reconcile ourselves to a better future informed by the truth surrounding present human rights abuses and those of the past.

Despite progress, in the last 50 years we have retreated from an honest conversation about racial and economic justice, and have opted instead for mass criminalization and incarceration leaving many poor and minority people marginalized and condemned. As Taylor’s story reminds us, out of sight is hardly out of mind. It is an abysmal violation of human dignity.


U.S. Rep. John Lewis has represented the 5th Congressional District of Georgia since 1987. Bryan Stevenson isexecutive director and founder of the Equal Justice.


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