The Movement for Criminal Justice Reform: Honoring its True Heroes

I hope that when we reach success, when a federal bill to reform the criminal justice system is signed into law, when states and the federal government celebrate a major reduction in incarceration, when there are substantial reforms in police practices.
08/11/2015 08:08 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2016

Criminal justice reform has been making big headlines in recent months. In July, the president's speech at the NAACP and his visit to El Reno Correctional Institution was not only the first time in history that a sitting president visited a federal prison, but also marked first time that a plan to overhaul America's criminal justice system was publicly presented by the Commander in Chief. Granted, nothing will change much unless words are turned into action and the advocacy community dedicates itself to a coherent and strategic campaign to hold the president to his word. Nonetheless, in the eyes of those who have been fighting to end mass incarceration and reform America's broken system of justice, these developments are a hopeful sign that the tide is turning.

Leading up to these events, in the last few years, governors from traditionally conservative states have all been signing criminal justice reform bills into law, and unlikely allies like the Koch brothers, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan have also jumped on the bandwagon to end mass incarceration and fix America's system of justice.

But to understand what has led to this turn of events, we must recognize the context in which they are taking place. In the last three plus decades, the U.S. has been diligently committed to and spent billions of dollars on (in recent years, roughly $80 billion annually) becoming the world's number one incarcerator. This country boasts 5 percent of the world population but houses 25 percent of its prisoners. Despite the decades-long "tough on crime" and "war on drugs" strategies that have consumed this nation, crime rates have not decreased to the level that one would expect, and drug use and abuse remain steady and continue to plague many communities across the nation. And although over the last several years, there has been a gradual decline in crime rates, there is no evidence linking the enormous number of people behind bars to the limited and gradual reduction in crime statistics.

To create a perfect storm, the major financial crisis in which many states and the federal government have found themselves has led fiscal conservatives and libertarians to join the more progressive and liberal voices in the call to reduce mass incarceration in America. States as unlikely as Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina (among nearly two dozen others) have passed a host of reform measures aimed at reducing prison populations, and a bi-partisan supported criminal justice reform bill, the SAFE Justice Act, is quickly gaining momentum and looking likely to pass in Congress. In fact, criminal justice reform has become as close to dinner-table conversation as we have ever seen and is set to be a centerpiece of the upcoming presidential campaign season.

It is not a bad thing that there are unlikely allies who now see themselves as stakeholders in the movement to reduce mass incarceration. In fact, it is welcome change to see agreement on at least one issue by American elected officials from across the aisle. What is problematic is how the reforms that will eventually happen as a result of this new coalition are framed, what aspects of this broken system these reforms will truly change, and to what and whom will the upcoming success be attributed.

First, much of the dialogue in this new bi-partisan campaign focuses on the fiscal irresponsibility associated with mass incarceration. Talking points such as, "It costs nearly $48,000 to send a child to prison, but $12,000 to send him/her to school," have become as common as the "tough on crime" rhetoric once was. But what this new wave of advocates often fail to address is the gross racial disparity that permeates the entire system of justice from start to end. Communities of color have always born the brunt of the system -- from being disproportionately targeted and killed by law enforcement, to being disproportionately arrested convicted and sentence to longer terms, and even to disproportionately receiving the death penalty. In their failure to recognize racial discrimination as an inherent and fundamental problem of the system, these advocates miss a viable solution to the problem: if we address and fix the racial bias in our system, we would reduce the prison population by nearly half.

Second, as evidenced by the infatuation of the American media and the public at large with newly-found conservative allies in this movement, we as a society are being dishonest about who deserves recognition for helping this country reach a point where reforms are finally possible. If ultimately this new turn of events lead to a drastic reduction in prison populations, and a reframing of drug crimes as a public health and not a criminal justice problem, we will all have won regardless of who claims "credit". But we must be true to ourselves, true to the history of this nation, and true to the memory and lives of those on whose backs this movement is built.

Long before Newt Gingrich or the Koch brothers came to the table, long before Rand Paul threw his weight behind an overhaul of the criminal justice system, and before President Obama declared this as a priority issue, organizers and grassroots activists from communities most impacted by crime and incarceration -- communities of color and poor communities -- lay the groundwork for this reform movement. Those who laid this foundation continue to pay a steep price, because it is they who are disproportionately targeted by police, they who are being arrested and sentenced to lengthier sentences, and they who face barriers to reentry and suffer the devastating collateral consequences of incarceration -- consequences that have generational impact.

This movement was built by those who have organized to end mandatory minimums since they were implemented in the 1980s and 90s, by communities who continue to organize and call for police accountability, by advocates who have for over four decades fought to end the unjust and ineffective war on drugs, by those who have committed themselves to removing barriers to reentry for those with criminal records, and by the youth who started and are building the Black Lives Matter movement -- youth whose parents and predecessors made the civil rights movement a reality.

I have spent countless hours working alongside family members who have lost their sons and daughters to this system. I have sat on panels with the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who courageously and eloquently advocate for change despite a heavy burden and grief that no parent should ever face. I have sat in a small living room in Rockford, IL as the mother of Mark Anthony Barmore showed me pictures of her young son, before he was gunned down by police (he was unarmed) at a church in front of a daycare full of kids. I have spent decades working with formerly incarcerated people and their families who, despite their personal struggles, make it a priority to fight and change the system so that others don't suffer as they have.

Thus, I hope that when we reach success, when a federal bill to reform the criminal justice system is signed into law, when states and the federal government celebrate a major reduction in incarceration, when there are substantial reforms in police practices -- I hope that at that point we stand proud, not with those who came to the table because they felt the pinch in their wallets, but with those who gave this movement everything they had when it was not the hot topic of the day, when it was not important just because it was costly. We must honor those who did and continue to do this work because they know it is, in the end, an issue of moral responsibility and not one of financial viability.