For those of us who advocate for justice in the American criminal and juvenile justice system, the last eight years have been nothing if not interesting, exciting...and frustrating.
The collision of a general fiscal crisis at all levels of government, and America's exploding and ineffective prison system created a perfect storm for unlikely partnerships between justice reform advocates and fiscal conservative, who through the years successfully linked government overspending to ineffective and expensive "tough on crime" and "lock'em up" policies. Advocates rightfully argued that despite the more than $70 billion annual spending on the prison system, and regardless that the U.S. has more than 2.3 million people behind bars (making it the #1 incarcerator in the world), in comparison, the country has not seen the level of increase in public safety. And though there has been a steady, general decline in the crime rate, the colossal investment in our prison system has not truly paid off in return.
Together, this new left-right coalition achieved unprecedented progress in reducing prison populations through sentencing reform measures and reforming drug laws across the country. Because of these efforts, in 2011 for the first time in the state's history, Texas closed one of its prisons. California passed several measures, including policies to reclassify some nonviolent offenses and reduced prison overcrowding by more than 30,000. Georgia has seen a decrease in prison commitments by 16% between 2009 - 2015 through passage of transformative corrections reforms in both the adult and juvenile systems. And even on the federal level, sweeping reforms for nonviolent offenses were implemented, and the 1,715 granted commutations by President Obama is the largest by any U.S. President, more than the last 12 presidents combined.
All of this has been exciting - something many of us never imagined we would witness in our lifetime. The stars aligned and with hard work, organizing, and planning by countless advocates we began to turn back the tragic trend of America's mass incarceration crisis.
Despite these victories, there has also been much frustration and plenty of mistakes.
To achieve these wins, many in the justice advocacy space publicly gave up the fight to end racism in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Though it was a familiar and well-used talking point, substantive measures to truly strike at racism at its core were missing. The focus became working to reclassifying low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, on supporting the reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals, on providing better programming inside prisons. All worthy and important in their own right. But, to keep the friendship of unlikely conservative allies, many advocates shied away from the fight to end racial profiling and institutional racism. They shied away from discussing American prisons as oppressive systems that are built to break and dehumanize people. And though I am sure they never stopped believing these to be the foundations of our systemic problems with the justice system, publicly they backed down.
But true allies should work with us on issues where our views converge, agree to disagree and take opposing sides when there are divergent beliefs. Yet when justice advocates intentionally decide not to publicly discuss racial discrimination and profiling to not lose the support of police unions for reforming low level drug laws (true story) - that stance lacks the integrity that this fight so greatly needs at its core. Moreover, it damages our efforts in the long run. Decreased and alternative sentences for drug addiction and non-violent drug crimes will never translate into ending systemic racism.
While some of our advocates were trying to not upset conservative allies with these "uncomfortable" and complicated issues, conservatives were busy continuing to unabashedly push their own agenda. As they should. It is the path that we should have also taken. Allies who leave you because you may disagree with them on some issues are not true allies.
We felt the depth of these missteps when we were grappling to wrap our heads around yet another incident of police violence or shooting of an unarmed Black man. The so many times we saw mothers, fathers, and family members weeping and mourning the loss of their loved ones at the hands of police officers who are sworn to protect and serve all of us. When we looked on as a school resource officer violently threw a young Black girl on the floor in the classroom, or when another young Black girl was thrown to the ground by police at a pool party last summer.
I feel the impact of this mistake every time I visit a prison and look on the sea of Black and brown faces who are disproportionately targeted, arrested, sentenced and locked up for crimes committed at the same rate by all racial and ethnic groups.
After the election, I was on a conference call with Linda Sarsour, co-chair for the 2017 Women's March on Washington, and the Co-Founder/CEO of MPower Change and ED of the Arab American Association of New York - a decades long advocate for justice. I was inspired by her words correctly labeling the incoming administration and its supporters as the opposition. She indicated that the strategy is not to sit down and negotiate with the new powers that be in Washington. The strategy is one that correctly identifies them as the opposing force, and not a potential group of allies.
That should be the strategy going forward - a carefully planned disengagement with and divestment from the institutions and officials that continue to wreaked havoc in our communities. And it starts with refusing to sit down with allies who will turn their backs on us if our agenda includes working towards things with which they don't agree.
Though not the same exact context, there are lessons to be learned from the protest divestment to end apartheid in South Africa. At first it seemed too complicated, almost impossible to get stockholders and corporations to divest from doing business in and with South Africa. But under public pressure, colleges, universities and other bodies slowly began financially divesting from the South African economy, helping raise awareness, bring global attention to the issue, and lead to over $1 billion dollars in loss of American investment. This strategy played an important role in finally helping end official South African apartheid.
In the same way, we need courageous advocates and our allies (conservative, liberal, left, right progressive and otherwise) to divest and disengage from official bodies and elected officials who have come to power on a platform of fear mongering, racism, sexism, oppression of racial minorities, and bashing of immigrants and refugees. The only engagement should focus on pressuring elected representatives to act justly on our issues, or risk being voted out of office.
I personally believe and hope that others consider this position as well: that Donald Trump and his entire administration be negated and not validated by American citizens and residents opposed to his presidency and the practices and tenets on which he campaigned. I reject and am shocked by the notion that some advocates and colleagues in the justice advocacy space are expressing, "Give him a chance...." No. Progressive social justice and advocacy does not under any interpretation include giving racism, sexism and elitism "a chance".
Dr. Niaz Kasravi is the Founder & Director of Avalan Institute for Applied Research Solutions - a research, advocacy and training institute, committed to connecting objective data, research and strategy with organizations and agencies working to impact social change in the areas of racial justice, human rights, and criminal and juvenile justice.
For more information visit: www.avalaninstitute.com