Sobremesa: We must do more to transform the criminal justice system

Welcome to Sobremesa, a column where you’ll read fervent calls to action on myriad social justice issues. In Spanish, Sobremesa is a word that describes the time before and after a meal when people spend time catching up. While Sobremesa is a hallmark of Hispanic culture, this word has no direct English translation, illustrating the tendency of American culture to skip over meaningful, casual discussion. Each week, Sobremesa will be a place to open your eyes to a social justice issue that you may want to bring to your own dining table.

The summer before my senior year of high school, during my internship with a local criminal defense attorney, I was particularly moved when I had the opportunity to watch Patrick, an accomplished middle-aged man who had made a devastating mistake, deliver an eloquent oration to the presiding judge. As Patrick repented for his addiction-fueled mistakes as a drug trafficker, he pleaded for the judge to give him a second chance, to allow him to continue to live a sober life and to serve his community. The judge accepted Patrick’s appeal.

I could talk endlessly about my views on the criminal justice system and its lack of equality. But the truth is, alongside discussion, we desperately need action.

It is time that we as Tufts students take a stand to influence the justice system. The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life currently sponsors the Tufts University Prison Initiative, a program that brings currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, corrections staff and scholars of criminal justice together to find solutions to mass incarceration. While helpful, this effort just scratches the surface of this deep-rooted issue.

We as Tufts students have the power to advocate for the creation of policies that take a bottom-up approach. If we can reach the root of the problem, people at high risk for incarceration can have the chance to pursue lives free of bars.

I care about this topic deeply. After learning about Patrick’s struggle, I realized that the faults of our criminal justice system are correlated with a widespread pandemic of racism and mass incarceration in our country. This is a pandemic that, unlike COVID-19, isn’t getting the coverage it deserves.

The longer we tolerate the alarming rate of incarceration of people behind bars, the further incarcerated individuals slip away from obtaining a successful future.

Patrick’s story solidified my understanding that historically marginalized groups are being oppressed and individuals are being punished for actions they cannot control. Our system inherently punishes those who deserve help. As Tufts students, it is our duty to transform this system.