Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Justice Series: The History of the Criminal Justice System

In Vogue’s May 2019 issue, celebrity Kim Kardashian West shocked readers by announcing her intention to take the California bar exam in 2022—a mere five years after a serendipitous Twitter post led her to realize that the U.S. criminal justice system is, in fact, in dire need of reform.

Although lawyers and fans alike criticized her legal naïveté, a subsequent interview with TIME highlights a key implication of Kardashian West’s ambitious goal: “any of ‘us’ could step up too if we chose to.” The fact of the matter is that problems with the U.S. criminal justice system are far too important—and pervasive—to ignore simply because the individual in question does not seem to fit the advocate mold.

When Richard Nixon promised the nation a new era of peace through his Law and Order Campaign, he was also launching a series of initiatives that would leave lasting impressions on domestic policy. His predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, had already attempted to address the rampant violence of the 1960s through increased policing; their combined efforts to prioritize building prisons, stop crime, and prohibit drugs drew focus away from social welfare programs in favor of punishment by imprisonment.

The so-called “War on Crime” that Johnson declared in March of 1965 sought to protect the public by targeting those who opposed normative society, but ultimately proved counterproductive. Over half a century of police militarization has prompted widespread accusations of police brutality, including charges for racial profiling and sexual assault. Moreover, researchers have found that while levels of violent crime in U.S. cities do not determine rates of police violence, factors such as race, postcode, and gender do—what started as an effort to quell concerns over the state of American society has since become a national crisis. Naturally, the populations most subject to encounter a police presence (i.e. low-income Black or Hispanic males) were also most liable to be arrested and imprisoned. 

However, police militarization was only part of the problem. In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller affected the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which further contributed to mass incarceration by compelling judges to send people convicted of drug offenses to prison rather than programs for rehabilitation, treatment, or education—in many ways, a precursor to Reagan’s “war on drugs.” Although subsequent governors have since amended the state penal code, the Drug Laws’ influence on modern society remained. Not only did the New York State prison population rise by almost 500% between 1974 and 2002, but Black and Hispanic males constituted the vast majority of inmates. Even after their sentences ended, the collective impact of their removal from society had affected the social structure of their communities, contributing to a perpetual feedback loop of generational poverty and incarceration in high-risk communities.

On a national scale, 1994 saw the implementation of two central pieces of legislation in criminal justice: the habitual offender laws (also known as the three-strikes laws), which required that people convicted of more than three serious crimes serve mandatory life sentences, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided states with billions in federal funding to expand their prison systems. The former emphasized uniformity in punishment over sentences tailored to the individual, and the latter both increased the magnitude of sentences and decreased the possibility of parole. Both these policies exacerbated the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S. while simultaneously affecting a disproportionate number of African-American men.

Today, the U.S. is the nation with the highest rate of per-capita incarceration and the largest prison population in the world. Despite consistent research that endorses supportive measures (i.e. programs that promote inmate education, rehabilitation, and collaboration) as a way to decrease rates of incarceration and recidivism, the U.S. criminal justice system continually creates opportunities to suppress and isolate people who seem to threaten a long-established façade of law and order.

It’s true that an Instagram model, wealthy socialite, and reality TV star may not be the best candidate for leading the charge against America’s flawed criminal justice system—but perhaps a positive-minded public figure may not be the worst proponent of a much-needed push for reform.



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