“The Presence of Justice,” a new project from The Atlantic, is our effort to cover the evolution of criminal justice in America with a heightened focus on the different systems and approaches developing all over the nation. In collaboration with reporters across the country, we’ll highlight local initiatives that merit national attention, and talk with experts about where and how lessons from states and municipalities can be applied more broadly. We’ll look at where the carceral state has spread beyond merely responding to crime, examine the time people spend behind bars without having been convicted, and explore how cities can depend on police to collect fines and fees from their poorest residents to make up for too little tax revenue.
The title of the project comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who included the phrase in his famous letter from Birmingham jail. That context is worth understanding for the challenge the letter poses to us today, as America struggles to reconcile the need for public safety with the moral imperative of justice.
In the letter, King was responding to a group of Birmingham clergymen. They’d argued that law and order were under threat from black citizens who insisted on doing things like sitting at restaurant counters and kneeling in white churches, in defiance of signs telling them they couldn’t. To the clergymen, the protesters’ insistence on confrontation and their unwillingness to parley with the powers-that-be for the right to buy lunch, however “technically peaceful," constituted an abrogation of law and order. "When rights are consistently denied,” the clergymen wrote, "a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”
The powers-that-be had sought and won a court injunction to forbid the troublemakers from kneeling and sitting and walking, and yet the troublemakers kneeled and sat and walked. Some of them, including King, got thrown in jail. From his cell, King wrote the famous letter that would cleave the nation’s understanding of “law and order” right in half, arguing that the observance of an unjust law violates the moral order. "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law,” he wrote. He castigated "the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice."
The divergence of the past two decades could be seen as a prime example of order triumphing while justice fails. The relatively low crime rates America has experienced over the past few years, seen against the backdrop of the sprawling carceral state and the constant tally of traumatic and often fatal encounters with police, constitute at best a negative peace. The challenge before us is imagining how, bit by bit, jurisdictions across the country can achieve something positive and precious in its stead: the presence of justice.