The United States incarcerates more people than does any other nation. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, America houses over 25 percent of all prisoners worldwide. Minority groups, mainly blacks and Latinos, make up more than 70 percent of these prisoners.
That’s 1.6 million African-Americans and Latinos in prison.
Jury nullification is a straightforward, but relatively unknown, practice that can be utilized against unfair incarcerations of minorities. The idea of jury nullification is relatively unknown throughout the U.S., but it ought to be a much more widespread practice. Nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “not guilty” despite its belief that the defendant may have actually committed the crime. They would do this because they understand that the law applies too harshly to the defendant.
Cecil Argue, program manager for inmate services at Todd Road Jail Facility, said in an interview with JSR that “prison overcrowding is probably our worst problem regarding crime and punishment; $60,000 is spent on one criminal per year.” Even with recidivism, in which criminals released from jail violate the law yet again, a 10 percent reduction in the jail population would save around $13 billion. As Argue puts it, “We’re looking at a huge sum of taxpayer money that can be spent elsewhere.”
The question, whose answer senators and ordinary citizens alike grapple with, is how we get people out of jail so that we can save billions. Cecil Argue points out that “even the best rehab centers can correctly release only 5 percent of criminals excluding those who resort to recidivism, and this is only counting drug-related offenses.” Rehabilitation centers, one of the most common remedies to our system, have a much-too-narrow scope and are highly ineffective.
Of course, the practice of jury nullification is uncommon for a reason: courts shouldn’t encourage juries to break the law. However, it is important to understand that, if nullification were to become a prevalent practice, juries would be informed about the ability to nullify; in other words, they would not be using it in every case.
Moreover, Clay Conrad, an attorney from the University of Texas Law School who analyzed a pair of empirical statistical studies of capital sentencing, found that “whereas juries are approximately 14 percent more likely to sentence the killer of a white to die than the killer of a black, prosecutors are 200 percent more likely to sentence the killer of a white to die than the killer of a black.” With the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of prisoners are minorities, jury nullification addresses the problem of prison overcrowding before the accused even goes to prison, and prevents unjust convictions.
A prime example of this can be seen with the use of cocaine. The majority of blacks who abuse cocaine, smoke crack cocaine, whereas the majority of whites who abuse cocaine, snort powdered cocaine. While the two drugs have very similar effects, powdered cocaine does more damage to the body. However, the penalty for smoking crack is much harsher than that of snorting powder cocaine. Bills to overturn these unfair penalties are ineffectual insofar as nothing has been accomplished to fix this problem. Nullification in this case serves as a check on this unjust law by lessening the penalty for blacks who smoke crack.
Our justice system is unbelievable and untrustworthy. Jury nullification is not the perfect solution. It’s not even going to reduce prison populations to the capacity of what prisons can hold. But, as Argue says, “It’s a huge step forward in addressing a volatile and unreliable justice system.”