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Issues in our criminal justice system have become a heated discussion in recent years. Problems like police brutality and the racist undertones of the system of law enforcement have been brought to light by movements like Black Lives Matter. Other issues like private prisons and corporate legislation have gotten away with lighter criticism, but have still seen the limelight in shows like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.
The new documentary, 13th, however, nicely encapsulates all of these issues with our criminal justice system in one place. By covering all of this ground and more, it provides a very accessible source for all of the things wrong with our law enforcement system, and how we got here. The fact that the film has been nominated for an Academy Award is refreshing to see: Getting the film’s message out for a broader audience to see is something that will have to happen in order for anything to change.
The story of 13th begins at the end of the Civil War, with the passage of the 13th Amendment. This Constitutional Amendment prohibits slavery in the United States but comes with an important loophole that the documentary spends the next hour and a half pursuing: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime… shall exist within the United States.”
The core nugget of the documentary is that this all-important caveat in the 13th Amendment has been used since its passage to justify unequal treatment on racial grounds. This has been the case all the way through the Nixon and Reagan eras when people were made to fear a crime wave after the civil rights movement, and then after the proliferation of crack cocaine. As time went on, this turned into a privatization of the prison complex, there to make a few well-connected corporations make money instead of not only punishing but also helping convicts.
Together, these causes created the inevitable effect: The problem of mass incarceration that has resulted in the United States, which has only 5% of the world’s population, having 25% of the world’s prisoners.
13th is a well-done movie that has earned its nomination as the best documentary made in 2016. Critics have lined up to trumpet praises of the film’s power and ability to deliver its message simply and effectively. The timing of the movie could not have come better, either: We’re at a time when the cracks in our criminal justice system have only just started to become exposed. 13th effectively puts all of them into one single frame for everyone to look at, and understand, and its creators seem to realize that the value of their film is in spreading the message, rather than making money – despite being released on October 7, 2016, it is already available to stream on Netflix.
William T. Bly is a criminal defense attorney in the state of Maine and has covered many of these issues in his legal blog. Contact him online or at (207) 571-8146 if you’ve been charged with a crime.
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