In 2016, the writer and lawyer Michelle Alexander said the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would come to be seen as a “critical turning point. If it winds up not being a turning point, it will be because we did not do our job.”
Nearly two months on since the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter has become one of the largest demonstrations in history, but it is still not clear whether a turning point has been reached.
If I have one reason to be optimistic, it is that hundreds of people have written to me asking: what can I do? There is a renewed awareness of racial disproportionality in criminal justice systems, a subject Alexander explores in The New Jim Crow. She makes a chilling comparison between the Jim Crow laws in the United States following the civil war, which segregated the newly emancipated black population, and the country’s system of mass incarceration today, in which one in three black men are sent to prison.
The US is often cited as the centre of racial injustice, but the relationship between criminal justice and racial injustice is global. Edited by Justin Healey, Indigenous People and Criminal Justice examines the disproportionality of indigenous imprisonment in Australia. Healey’s research is a vital piece of work on decolonising a criminal justice system in which the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island population account for 27% of Australia’s prisoners, despite making up less than 3% of the total population.
During the coronavirus crisis, prisoners have been subject to an emergency lockdown regime that has seen offenders in England and Wales spending 23 hours a day in their cells, without access to education, rehabilitation or visits. Measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 are vital, but without a comprehensive plan to relax these extreme policies, prisons could start to resemble Bleak House. Charles Dickens published the first instalment of this satirical portrait of a decaying British judicial system in 1852. Today, Bleak House reads less like satire and more like an omen. After cuts to the Ministry of Justice of a quarter in real terms over the past decade, our outdated system is starting to look dystopian even by Dickensian standards.
As cuts deepen, the backlog of criminal cases grows, leaving defendants sitting in their cells waiting for a trial. Defendants such as Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death in Alabama in 1988 for killing a white woman, serving six years before his conviction was overturned. In his powerful memoir, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson tells McMillian’s story and recalls his own struggles against injustice as a young lawyer. Thankfully, we do not have the death penalty in the UK. But our backlog of 41,000 criminal cases means some people are being held on remand for an even longer period than they would serve if convicted of their alleged offence.
Our system is creaking because its foundations have been weakened by a decade of underfunding. In The Secret Barrister, an anonymous criminal advocate exposes deep faults in our legal system. As a former barrister myself, I know that junior professionals working on legal aid cases come from a variety of backgrounds, and often work in impossible conditions. If we fail to support these people, we fail to support those who rely on them the most. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, no prizes will be awarded for guessing which defendants, victims and communities will end up paying the price.
• Tribes by David Lammy is published by Constable (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.