The Oscars and the WJP: racial inequality and the criminal justice system

This year’s Oscars ceremony saw a powerful acceptance speech (above), and a moving performance that brought many celebrities to tears, by John Legend and Common, in which they spoke movingly about the current racial inequalities in the United States. Just a day later, the Wits Justice Project held its own lunchtime presentation on racial history and mass incarceration in South Africa and the United States of America.

Jennifer Taylor is a racial justice and criminal defense lawyer at the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which recently released a report documenting nearly 4000 lynchings in the American South from 1877-1950. She has spent the last two months in South Africa as a visiting researcher with the Wits Justice Project, exploring the common links between the two countries’ histories of racial injustice and current criminal justice crises.

Jennifer’s presentation included an overview of her work at the EJI, which focuses on death-row exonerations, as well as rectifying the effects of racial inequalities perpetuated by the criminal justice system. She said that she had been surprised to find how many problems of injustice and inequality are shared by both the US and South Africa, despite the fact that South Africa has one of the best constitutions in the world.

In her research – during which she conducted interviews with staff of the South African Human Rights Commission, Department of Correctional Services Security, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as former inmates and academic experts – Jennifer argues that South Africans did not evaluate the criminal justice system after the end of apartheid. The system of laws, which had been put in place to uphold a deeply unjust and immoral apartheid regime, should have been scrutinized and improved, to ensure it would no longer perpetuate racial inequality or miscarriages of justice.

Jennifer Rae Taylor, staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative (left) and Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, project coordinator of the Wits Justice Project (right)

Jennifer Rae Taylor, staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative (left) and Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, project coordinator of the Wits Justice Project (right)

Reflecting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and transitional justice, Jennifer discussed the lack of a distinction between political crimes and other types of crime, highlighting how under the apartheid regime any crime could have easily been classified as a political crime because of the specificity of what the system intended to attain.

There was no critical analysis of how the apartheid legal framework – put in place to uphold an unjust and inhumane system – factored into someone committing crime. Furthermore, there hasn’t been an institution similar to the TRC to address the impact of pre-democracy criminal justice on individuals and their communities.

She observed that most of the people she talked to shared a similar sentiment: they were of the view that the militaristic style of the apartheid regime was very effective because it had a clear mandate. When apartheid ended, the mandate of the correctional services was changed, but it was not clear to what and it left a vacuum. This has sometimes resulted in a culture of impunity and a continued disregard for the rights of inmates.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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