Why Kyle Rittenhouse’s Case Is Just Another Example Of The Systemic Failings By The U.S. Criminal Justice System

In August 2020, two months after the Black Lives Matter movement peaked in the United States, in response to the murder of George Floyd, many protests occurred in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin. They followed the police shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake. During this period of unrest, a 17 year-old white teenager, named Kyle Rittenhouse, travelled across state lines from Illinois with an AR-15 assault rifle, in an attempt to “protect property.” This resulted in the shooting of three people, two of whom died after being shot.

Over a year later, Rittenhouse was charged in court, with five counts of intentional homicide, reckless homicide, and recklessly endangering safety. He was found not guilty on all counts, as the jury ruled that the shootings were in self-defence. Whilst being a welcomed verdict for some, many have found it problematic, as they see it as yet another example of white privilege in America. While a white man in America can get away with killing two people, black men in America have themselves died at the hands of law enforcement for much less; something the Black Lives Matter movement has opposed. Despite both victims of the shooting being white, this occurred at a demonstration protesting against the systemic racism in the U.S. that allows white privilege.

After the verdict, Rittenhouse stated that his case “had nothing to do with race,” and has since claimed to be in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement. Rittenhouse said this, despite being the poster child for many Republicans who have criticized the movement, He also publicly supports the “Blue Lives Matter movement on social media, which has frequently clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters.

Since the verdict, reactions from Americans have been varied, to say the least. Critics of the verdict have much to say; not only about the trial, but also the U.S. criminal justice system, the shooting, and who, if anyone, will do something about it. Looking first at the shooting, Kyle Rittenhouse, who was 17 years old at the time, carried an assault rifle from Illinois to Wisconsin. During the protest he spoke to police officers, whilst openly carrying his weapon, only a few minutes before killing two people. Then, he returned home where his mother convinced him to turn himself in. Once he had done so, police officers terminated his interview after realizing that he didn’t know his Miranda Rights.

There is difficulty in looking at any one of these details and not suspecting that if Kyle Rittenhouse were a person of colour, he would not have been able to act in such a way without punishment. Unfortunately, the trial was not much better. For many, the judge, Bruce Schroeder, showed an obvious bias in favour of Rittenhouse during the case. In Wisconsin it is illegal for under 18’s to carry firearms, yet the judge threw out the case because of the length of the gun’s barrel.

Judge Schroeder has a history of leaning pro-defence, and got Rittenhouse to randomly select the jurors himself. He had multiple back and forth exchanges with the prosecution and ruled that those who had died were not to be called victims. In addition, though possibly coincidental, his phone ringtone is the song “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a song often used at pro-Trump rallies. Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all charges because that the protesters posed a threat to him, yet the notion that it could have been the other way around- that he threatened them- was quickly dismissed.

Such issues are just part of a much bigger issue- that the U.S. criminal justice system is, in many ways, extremely flawed. Law enforcement and policing have betrayed the trust of minorities for such a long time, that many in the U.S. no longer feel comfortable calling emergency services during an emergency. Additionally, the 1994 crime bill, co-authored by President Joe Biden, along with mandatory minimum sentencing, and trying juveniles as adults, have all arguably helped contribute to the mass incarceration of minorities in America.

If all of this makes you wonder “is no-one trying to fix this?” then you would not be alone. Whilst Joe Biden previously claimed that he would try to reform the criminal justice system in the wake of the Rittenhouse judgment, he stated that “[I] stand by what the jury has concluded.” Nevertheless, a record low number of American’s trust their legal system. Since the verdict, many have hailed Rittenhouse a hero, with multiple prominent Republican members offering him internships.

Despite being a polarizing issue, there are calls from both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S., claiming that the Rittenhouse verdict was not fair. However, once an acquittal is made in a U.S. court, it is extremely unlikely that the defendant will ever be put on trial for those same crimes again. This means that, unless it is revealed that Rittenhouse has broken another law in the future, he will not face the threat of going to prison. This does not however, mean that the criminal justice system is beyond restoration and cannot be fixed. But to do so, it will need unity from both political parties, and for President Biden to see it as a cause worth fighting for.

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden ran for office on the pledge that he would “strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.” To this end, he aimed, amongst other things, to reduce the number of crimes and people incarcerated, end racial and gender biases in the system, focus on rehabilitation over punishment, and stop people’s profiting from the system. Whilst these pledges are all positive and necessary reforms, it is not yet clear how the Biden administration will enact them in order to make a difference.

Criminal justice reform in the U.S. must be achieved in order to fight the obvious biases and racism against black people and minorities in the U.S. It is unjust that white people have, for years, been getting away with crimes that minorities are shot and killed for. Criminal justice reform is one of the major ways to tackle this problem. While it will be difficult to change systemic racism in a country with such a long history of being systematic racism, there are specific aspects of the judicial system that could help to prevent it. The first, would be to end mass incarceration by getting rid of the 1994 crime bill, funding drug and mental health treatment programs, and focusing prison on rehabilitation instead of punishment.

In addition, 80% of emergency calls in the U.S. are for non-violent crimes. As such, the police should not answer them, as they are often responsible for escalating calls, turning them violent. If these changes are properly enacted in the U.S. criminal justice system, it will certainly not end racism in the country, but will be the first step in creating a more harmonious system.One that sees fewer minorities prosecuted and murdered; and one that ensures there can be no repeat of any case similar to Kyle Rittenhouse’s.

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