If hip-hop culture reshaped our justice system...
Paul Butler is a Harvard Law grad and former federal prosecutor who believes that the American criminal justice system is broken. In his book, "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment," published by The New Press, he offers a vision of justice that he hopes would lead to fewer inmates and fairer treatment of the accused. It's a theory founded in pop culture. Butler is a law professor at George Washington University.
GUEST BLOGGER: Paul Butler
Imagine crime and punishment in a hip-hop nation. Believe it or not, the culture provides a blueprint for the transformation of American criminal justice. Hip-hop leads us toward a system that would enhance public safety and treat all people with respect. Who would have thought that the most thuggish art could improve law and order?
I grew up listening to hip-hop, and I "can't stop/ won't stop" digging the music now that I am a law professor. But it was when I was a DC prosecutor that I really started to learn from it.
Chuck D, of Public Enemy, described hip-hop as "the Black CNN." The artists give us ground level reporting about the collateral consequences of the dramatic expansion of U.S. prison population.
Hip hop is obsessed with criminal justice. Its fashion actually began as a tribute to the loose baggy clothes that prison inmates wear. Thousands of hip-hop songs consider crime and punishment. They evaluate justice from the bottom up. No other form of pop culture does a better job at reminding Americans that we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and that communities can be destroyed by both crime and punishment.
When hip-hop artists rap about criminal justice, it's often based on experience. Many of the artists -- from the current best sellers Lil Wayne and T.I. to old school stars like Slick Rick-- have been locked up. They have that in common with other African-American men. On any given day about one in three young black man has a criminal case: he's either in prison, on probation or parole, or awaiting trial.
When a large percentage of the people you know and love get locked up, prison seems to say as much about the state as it does about those young men. Jay-Z raps "if he's locked in the pentintiary, send him some energy, they all winners to me."
What's happened in our society that prison inmates are viewed as winners? What's happened is that we have used prison promiscuously. The United States has 5 perent of the world's population, and 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
This is mainly the result of "the war on drugs," which has been waged selectively against African-Americans. So many people in the black community have gotten locked up, that going to jail has lost its stigma. The hip-hop slang for getting prosecuted is "catching a case." It's sort of like catching the flu -- a little bit your fault, a little bit just bad luck.
The message in hip-hop is that any organization that is composed primarily of people like us must be cool: it doesn't matter whether it is Howard University, the National Basketball Association or the DC Jail. So when people say that hip-hop glorifies crime, it is more accurate to think of it as glorying African-American men: it rejects the stigma that the criminal justice system tries to put on us.
Hip-hop suggests that the way to make citizens have more respect for the criminal justice system is to make the system more respectable. So what would criminal justice look like in a hip-hop nation? The philosopher John Rawls suggests that law is most just when it is made by those who don't know how they will fare under it.
Since minority members of the hip-hop community are most likely to be arrested and most likely to be victims of crime, they come closest to Rawl's ideal lawmakers. Their theory of justice values public safety, fairness to accused persons, and effective punishment.
We would do better if the ghetto philosophers and the classic theorists met. It turns out that English jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham and Snoop Dogg have a lot in common. Erykah Badu and philosopher Immanuel Kant would get along well, but their differences would be instructive.
Hip-hop artists represent a community that has borne the brunt of this country's mad rush to incarcerate. That community knows much, has laid it down on tracks, and now attention must be paid.
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