The Evolution of America’s Justice System

By Rayiah Ross

According to the Greek philosopher Plato, the Theory of Justice is that “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally.” To explain, any person should be treated the same in the eyes of justice, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation they are involved in. This philosophy quickly gets complicated with cases where children are committing murders and wives are killing husbands. It’s easy for any jury or judge to think of themselves as a sort of god like figure, but at the end of the day, they are no different than the person on trial. Beside the standard qualifications, what sets apart those who are fit to judge to those who are told they have no say in the eyes of the law?

Before we had an ‘organized’ justice system, society was regulated and controlled on the the behavior of each individual in a group membership. The sins of one person or persons was judged in the eyes of their neighbor or their society rather than a judge. Philosophers in the Middle Ages (5th – 15th century) believed that  each person gives what is due to others in the measure that they are due, even if they are not equal. While each person’s actions should benefit everyone, justice should be based on both civil and moral law. Many in the Classical Era (1730 – 1820) philosophized justice as balancing three parts of the soul: reason, spirit, and desire. With these three parts balanced, harmony would reign over how each individual should behave and organize themselves. Our modern system of criminal justice is the result of many evolutionary changes that society has undergone over the years. American mechanisms institute and enforce the rules of society like the police, the courts, and corrections.

The modern justice system is one where nationwide, black children represent 32% of children who are arrested according to the NAACP. Without regard to race, in line with Prison Policy Initiative, America holds 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prison population. Statistics show that America’s prison population has reached astounding numbers, higher than ever before, with 2.3 million Americans incarcerated today and another 5 million released on parole or probation. With regard to race, people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, yet they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. Students of color also face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated according to the Center of American Progress.

The evolution of America’s justice philosophy has altered drastically over the years, yet we continue to look at the facts in front of us as just another number.  We have come a long way since the Middle Ages, but I also believe we have a lot farther go and a lot more to fight for. That is a fact, and I refuse to become another statistic.


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