On July 24, 2004, I stood in an overly air-conditioned courtroom in Gainesville, Georgia, and watched as my then-husband pled out to six years in prison for a non-violent crime. As the bailiff handcuffed him and began to lead him out of the room, I looked down at my two-month-old daughter and felt fear wash over me. Without having gone to college, I'd been unable to find a job making more than the minimum wage, and I knew that my income alone would not be enough to pay for our household and provide food for my daughter and me.
As the days passed, I began to feel a growing sense of rage. Sentencing a person to six years in prison would not only rip apart his family, but he would lose his job, his home, and any support he had within the community. How could there not be a more logical approach to addressing crime?
My husband was taken out of the courtroom that day and sent to a diagnostic facility, where we would be unable to have any contact with him for the first six weeks of his incarceration. Not knowing anything about prisons besides what I'd seen on television, I imagined the worst. I lay in bed terrified at night, kept awake with worry, wondering if I would get a call telling me he'd been hurt or possibly worse.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a family member of a prisoner is the ambiguity. Due to overcrowding in the prison system and constraints on space, inmates are moved around frequently and without warning. You have no idea whether or not your loved one will get the letters you send, what time they will be able to call you, or even if they will be there when you show up for a visit.
The experience of having a family member in prison was not only emotionally debilitating, but financially, as well. Phone calls were $17. We could barely afford the cost of gas to drive hundreds of miles to a county facility far away from our home. I watched every penny I spent so I could add funds to his commissary to buy basic provisions like pens, paper and shampoo, which in my mind, should have been provided by the prison itself. It's almost as though the system was set up to destroy families and disintegrate any support networks an inmate may have.
Determined to find solutions to the injustice I'd experienced, I decided to pursue my education and become a criminal-defense attorney. I took my first job out of law school representing death-row inmates in California. I continued to learn how the prison system's poor design actually encouraged crime by dehumanizing inmates and forcing them to focus all their energy on surviving its harsh and dangerous conditions, rather than providing meaningful opportunities to learn new skills or prepare for successful reintegration back into society. Frustrated with the system, I co-founded #cut50 and set out to smartly and safely cut the prison population in half in the next 10 years.
At #cut50, we believe there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform our broken criminal-justice system and institute smarter, cheaper, and more efficient ways of addressing crime. We also believe that incarceration impacts all of us and it will take a wide range of voices -- especially those directly impacted by the system -- to create a new narrative of justice and redemption. Most importantly, we see each of the more than two million people currently locked behind bars in this country as individuals who have the potential to contribute to their communities and succeed outside the walls of prison and jail.
And we are not the only ones. Last month, more than 600 people -- including 10 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, three GOP governors, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and even the President, who appeared via video -- took the day to reflect on our justice system and band together to call for reform at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. Their powerful voices echoed the same message throughout the day -- putting more than two million Americans behind bars has made our streets more dangerous, wasted our precious resources, and created an even bigger racial divide in this country. It is time to change not only how we, as a nation, address crime, but how we view and treat those who have committed crimes.
Over the past three weeks, we have highlighted What's Working in Criminal Justice Reform. These innovative programs and policies, coupled with the political energy and determination we saw at the Bipartisan Summit, will lay the foundation for real transformative reforms.
Let us work together to ensure that individuals are successfully diverted from entering the prison system to begin with and help restore justice to communities, empower people with new opportunities, and save precious tax dollars to make neighborhoods across the country stronger. We are at a unique moment in time. Let's seize the opportunity and tear down walls of injustice to build new hope for millions of people around the country.
This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series, in partnership with #cut50, co-sponsors of the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform (Washington, D.C., March 26). The Summit was part of a movement to popularize support for criminal-justice reforms while also having comprehensive discussions about the policies, replicable models and data-driven solutions needed to achieve systemic changes. The series will focus on such solutions. For more information on #cut50, read here. And to read all the posts in the series, see our What's Working coverage here.
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