Paul Butler realized things had to change when he was charged and prosecuted for a misdemeanor he hadn’t committed. A lawyer who had prosecuted people in the very courtroom his trial was held in, Butler was had little reason to worry. “Things worked out fine, because I had the best lawyer in town,” he said.
But most African-American men in his situation, he knew, lacked the skills and resources he had. As a prosecutor, he had frequently put those men away. “I used that power to put black men in prison,” Butler said.
Butler, a professor of law at Georgetown University and former federal prosecutor, discussed his new book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” in front of a sizable crowd at the University of Baltimore Angelos Law Center on Tuesday night. The criminal justice system, he argued, was “designed to target [African Americans] and make us fail.”
The talk, held as part of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s “Talking About Race” series, was co-sponsored by the University of Baltimore School of Public Affairs. Throughout the night, Butler took questions from the institute’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program director, Tara Huffman, as well as the audience.
The institute is the local office of the Open Society Foundations, a network of philanthropic organizations dedicated to accountable and open government. It focuses on challenges to larger urban centers and policy issues arising from discrimination – among them advocating for widespread drug addiction treatment and stopping up the school-to-prison pipeline.
The book started as a “real talk” guide, Butler said: useful advice on how to navigate the criminal justice system as an African-American, from an African-American federal prosecutor. Then came the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and a number of other high-profile police killings of African-Americans. Butler’s focus shifted to the criminal justice system at large.
The titular chokehold, for Butler, is both literal and figurative. “They’re choking you to try to get you to do something, but you can’t,” he said. “[The] law and social practices try to control us,” he said, but “based on the situation, it’s difficult to comply.”
Addressing Baltimore’s consent decree with the Justice Department, Butler noted that reform can help in the short term, but not every reform process works—about half of the time, Butler said, police violence goes up. The efficacy of consent decrees has not been evaluated by the DOJ, and Butler worries that the process too often focuses on “bad apple cops” instead of an underlying structural issue of racial power.
Whites further gain from black oppression through more subtle tools as well, he argued. Aggressive policing, he said, “goes hand-in-hand with gentrification,” and “clears the space for your beer gardens and Starbucks.”
Turning to questions from the audience, Butler addressed more local issues.
When asked if there were organizations with more equitable approaches to crime and punishment, Butler cited the Common Justice program in Brooklyn, N.Y., a restorative justice program, as a promising model for the future due to its lower recidivism rates.
Instead of routing violent offenders through the criminal justice system, the program reroutes violent offenders – with the permission of the victim – through a process designed to ensure “accountability without incarceration.”
One Baltimorean asked if devolving the prosecution of police brutality cases to an independent third party would be a rational move for the city following the acquittals of the police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray.
Butler answered in the affirmative, noting that prosecutors are often more familiar with the small set of police officers responsible for the majority of arrests – most go without an arrest for months at a time – and that it can be difficult to prosecute an officer you’re familiar with.
Butler closed on prison abolition, a radical idea that he argues deserves consideration. The prison system was invented as a humane alternative to the previous justice system — and it was an experiment that failed, he said.
That isn’t to say that he wants to see all prison doors flung open immediately. Instead, Butler backs “gradual decarceration,” citing the residents of prison-operated assisted living facilities in recent years as an easy case for release.
In 2012, a case against the State of Maryland invalidated the sentences of 232 prisoners who had been sentenced to life without parole on the grounds that they had been denied due process. The group – all sentenced prior to 1981 – had a 0 percent recidivism rate as of October 2016. The institute has worked with several organizations to provide re-entry resources to the 159 members of the so-called Unger Group who have been released.