As a criminal attorney for 23 years, Muhammad Ibn Bashir has seen a lot, both in the courtroom and behind closed doors with clients, many of whom are young men of color.
"There are basically three things to consider when discussing the incarceration of young black men,'' he said in an e-mail interview. "They are as follows: your own actions, the actions of others and the perception that young black male equals criminal.''
'Raw Law: An Urban Guide to Criminal Justice' lays bare details behind America's criminal justice system. In 2009, 563,500 black men were housed in state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice's December 2010 report, the largest number were between the ages of 25 to 39.
Additionally, Bashir has dealt with some of the nation's most difficult cases, including serving as co-counsel in the World Trade Center bombing trial. He talks to BlackVoices.com about his new book and his thoughts on the criminal justice system.
BlackVoices.com: To what do you attribute the large number of incarcerated black men, and why is mass incarceration so prevalent within the black community?
Muhammad Ibn Bashir: Many of the young black males that I see in criminal justice are there based on their own foolish conduct. That conduct is usually based on their emotions and/or their ignorance of the system. No one is teaching our children to think critically, and thus, all they have as a frame of reference when confronted with a decision is emotion. Ignorance of your own plight and your surroundings is a recipe for disaster and since America has always fought against the education of young black males, incarceration is a disaster waiting to happen.
Mass incarceration is the product of a very American legal concept, which was articulated by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case that "A black man has no right that a white man is bound to respect." Slavery as an institution meant that white males did not have to compete for jobs, homes, land or families with their black male counterparts. White America profited enormously from that peculiar institution. What would make them want to change it? Morality has never trumped capitalism and it still does not.Look at the time when mass incarceration became en vogue. It happened directly on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when white America was being forced by the courts to share the resources. For the first time in history, a black man could get a job, loan or college seat to the perceived detriment of white men. White America struck back by declaring "Law and Order," a "War on Drugs" and attacked the black community with the criminal justice system (the grandchild of slavery). The ultimate reality is mass incarceration and, thus, the continuance of white supremacy. As part of this attack, the perception was created that young, black and male meant criminal, and because young black males have no education about what is happening to them, they fall victim to their historical ignorance.
BV: What are a couple of the most widely believed myths when it comes to people dealing with the criminal justice system? Please set the record straight for our readers.
MIB: The biggest myth is that there is something called a fair trial. For example, in Illinois, the governor just repealed the death penalty. (1) He did so because he recognized that a trial can never guarantee that you convicted the right person. Three hundred-plus exonerations based on DNA evidence demonstrated that. (2) He did so because he could not guarantee that the police did not fabricate evidence to implicate people. The discovery that Chicago police officers tortured confessions out of black suspects also helped convince him. (3) He discovered that prosecutors charge blacks differently than they do whites, that penalties are enforced differently against blacks as opposed to whites. In other words, racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system. Frankly, he acted on something he should have known all along, but when your victim is black and valueless, why bother considering it as anything other than the cost of doing business?
In Pennsylvania, it was discovered that judges were funneling offenders to particular juvenile facilities. These judges maintained the myth of being fair and impartial until it was disclosed that they were receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks to send kids to these institutions. There can be no justice without fairness and there can be no fairness with all the variables that the culture will never address, until the system begins to impact on the white community, as in this case of the white juveniles who were exposed in this scam at the Pennsylvania facilities.
The second biggest myth is that a paid lawyer is better than a public defender. The issue is skill, access and heart. Just because you retained a lawyer, doesn't mean he/she has any of the qualities you need. And just because the public defender appears aloof, arrogant and often condescending, doesn't mean he or she does not have the skill to handle your matter. The best way to deal with this issue is to watch the lawyer work. Public or private is a question of your needs and your comfort level, but there are quite a few incompetent jerks on both sides of this debate.
BV: As someone who has represented far too many young people who have either intentionally or unintentionally had run-ins with the criminal justice system, are there any cases in which you feel you've been able to make a difference? If so, what happened that allowed you to get through to that client, for him or her to actually hear you and change their lives?
MIB: Once I represented a young black male who was acquitted at his criminal trial. During the time I represented him, he was your typical street thug charged with armed robbery. He thought he had all the answers even without knowing the question. We would debate and argue and fight about what it was like to grow up in the "streets" and I would tell him that the key to his future was his willingness to work for it. I also told him that education was his key to getting out of the hood or staying in the hood as someone who fights to change it, versus someone working to destroy it. His grandmother told me that he now has a bookstore with a section he calls "Bashir's Sayings.''
The saying that I understand he loves the most is, "If you don't stand for something, you stand for nothing." His grandmother said that he told her that he changed his life because no one ever fought for him before. He said that while in court, I made him sound like someone important, someone worthy of respect. He also said that no one ever fought with him so hard. It was the fact that I would take the time to argue with him and discuss life that made him read so he could have a better argument whenever we met. The bookstore now satisfies his appetite for the same learning that he gathered from our arguments and discussions.
BV: What do you think are the most important lessons that people will get from reading 'Raw Law'?
MIB: There are two important lessons. The first is the cliché: "Knowledge is power." That simply means that you are in such a better position to make decisions about your own life if you have information. This book gives you information. And who does it empower? All ages and people from all backgrounds have found something they can identify with in this book. Teenagers and those who have been incarcerated are calling me or writing me saying they learned something. Parents and grandparents are calling me to say thanks for the information. Teachers are structuring their classes to include the book as a part of their curriculum. It's clear that when you know better, you can do better.
The second lesson is that for everyone willing to read it, the book gives you something you can identify with personally. These are the stories that you hear at your barbershop or your front steps with the added bonus of learning how the law and the system really impacts upon you. When I say that the best way to avoid injustice is to avoid this monster called criminal justice, you now know the reason why.