PHILADELPHIA ― The criminal justice system and its problems received prominent attention this week during the Democratic National Convention.
Hillary Clinton vowed to reform it “from end to end.” Mothers whose children have died in racially charged situations gave impassioned pleas for those in power to do something about gun violence and a law enforcement system exhibiting widespread civil rights violations.
Their stories have been heard before. The deaths of their children rocked the country into consciousness over the past few years. But they were never given a platform like this: a primetime slot at one of the major political party conventions, broadcast on every major network for millions to see.
Moments before those mothers took the stage, former Attorney General Eric Holder explained why he thought an overhaul of the criminal justice system was necessary. “When 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration,” he said on Tuesday.
Clinton, Holder and the mothers of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown ― to name a few ― weren’t the only ones talking about the issue. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) mentioned it in their speeches. President Barack Obama advised voters to not look to the commander in chief alone to fix the nation’s legal system.
The attention paid to the criminal justice system this week at the DNC undoubtedly sent a signal, but it will mean little if the next president and Congress fails to prioritize reform. That’s where activists and organizations focused on revamping the country’s incarceration institutions will need to fill in the gaps ― not letting up once politicians have moved on from the convention.
Heightened racial tensions across the country in the last month may not seem directly connected to criminal justice reform legislation ― which would reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders, dedicate resources to reduce recidivism, and give judges greater discretion in sentencing for low-level drug offenses ― but they are.
“Part of the economic malaise of the whole country is bolstered by racial tension, which is bolstered by injustice in the criminal justice system,” progressive Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told The Huffington Post earlier this week. “I mean, part of the way you can convince masses of Americans that they should tolerate the mistreatment of a group is by convincing the masses of Americans that those people somehow deserve it because they are somehow criminally inclined.”
Watching the Democratic convention alone, it would be easy to assume passing legislation addressing the overpopulation of America’s prisons would be a no-brainer for a Congress struggling to find bipartisan bills in a turbulent election year. It’s not.
When the new session started in January, criminal justice reform was the first thing lawmakers mentioned when asked what, if anything, they could pass during Obama’s last year in office ― not to mention during a contentious election year that shortened their work calendar.
Seven months later, legislation has yet to reach the floor in either chamber. Shortly after lawmakers left for their summer break, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he would start bringing criminal justice reform bills to the floor in September. Ellison isn’t holding his breath, quipping that just because Ryan said that to the press doesn’t mean it will happen.
“It’s going to take a movement to make sure he keeps that promise,” Ellison said. “The movement has to keep the heat on.”
That’s just the House. A bipartisan coalition of senators revised sentencing reform legislation in April to attract more Republican cosponsors, hoping that would prove to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that now is the time to bring it to the floor. Instead, months went by, and senators like Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have grown increasingly frustrated, blaming McConnell for listening to vocal Republicans who oppose criminal justice reform altogether.
In addition to the DNC speeches, Democrats and Republicans included criminal justice reform in their respective party platforms, adopted days before their conventions. Democrats went further in calling for an end to mass incarceration and the abolishment of the death penalty. The Democrats’ platform changes were monumental, advocates said.
Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety, the nonprofit affiliate of U.S. Justice Action Network, said the platforms are a sign that what happened for decades in the system has been “morally unjustifiable” and “fiscally untenable,” as well as “an overreach of government” that led to the “ruining of people’s lives.”
Pressed on why the two parties were beginning to push this now, as opposed to four years ago, Hawkins pointed to the growing movement in the states. In this past year, Hawkins said, 24 states passed some form of justice reform, including efforts to alleviate crimes previously defined as felonies for nonviolent drug offenses and reclassifying them as misdemeanors.
Advocates present in Philadelphia this week know that the only way Congress will move is by keeping the heat on. That’s what Jessica Jackson Sloan intended when working with organizations to make sure the voices of people impacted by mass incarceration were heard during the DNC. Jackson Sloan is the national director of #cut50, a nonprofit dedicated to bipartisan solutions to cutting jail and prison populations across the U.S. by 50 percent in the next 10 years.
Across town from the Wells Fargo Center ― where Democrats nominated Clinton to sit atop their ticket ― #cut50 and Rock the Vote created a pop-up art exhibit meant to engage young voters and address political and social issues. A number of the art pieces touched on police brutality, gun violence and criminal justice reform.
In the same building housing the exhibit, #cut50 and Rock the Vote hosted three days of discussions centered primarily around the criminal justice system. The entire project kicked off Rock the Vote’s Truth to Power campaign aimed at mobilizing millennials. Panel discussions ranged from “A world beyond prisons” and “The militarization of police” to “Will criminal justice reform ever happen?”
Why choose to do this in Philly at the same time as the Democratic convention? It fell under one of Jackson Sloan’s short-term goals when launching #cut50 two years ago ― to get every presidential candidate talking about criminal justice reform.
“There’s so much money spent on these conventions, and they’re a pipeline into every living room across the country,” Jackson Sloan told HuffPost. “So you get the folks up there talking about this in the right way and explaining the issue ... and they’re changing hearts and minds across the country.”
Michael Skolnik, one of the producers of the Truth to Power exhibit, put it bluntly. “We have to be here,” he said, adding that it’s important for Clinton and Sanders to “hear us loud and clear.”
Skolnik also sits on the board of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. He expressed frustration with elected officials, and when pressed on what’s different this time around that will make lawmakers listen, he admitted the movement made a mistake in years past.
“We learned our lesson the hard way,” he said. “In 2008, we went back to our respective communities, we weren’t as engaged in the Obama administration as we should have been.”
This time around that won’t happen, he said. He and others, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or organizations like Rock the Vote and #cut50, will keep at it. Skolnik has been fighting against mass incarceration and police brutality from a young age. He doesn’t expect the kind of change that’s needed to happen overnight, especially given the 40-odd years that law enforcement raged a war on drugs, locking people up rather than helping them with treatment.
“So I hope that when it’s over is when my last breath is taken on this earth,” he said.
Giving It A Human Face
In the end, it isn’t just about keeping criminal justice reform in the spotlight for #cut50 and the larger movement, but humanizing the issue while “everybody’s watching,” Jackson Sloan said.
To do that, Jackson Sloan gets personal. Roughly 12 years ago, her husband went to prison on drug charges. One year into his sentence they divorced, stretched too thin by a lack of income, a house entering foreclosure, communication prohibited by the prison (she couldn’t even send him a letter), and the cost of phone calls once allowed ($21 for 15 minutes). Later, her husband was moved to different housing where they made him work every day for a 52 cent-per-hour wage.
“As somebody whose husband was incarcerated, I just saw how it ripped apart my family, how it left my child to grow up without a father the first few years of her life, and all because of a drug addiction,” she said.
Currently, 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails, according to the latest data. And those who make it out are likely to go back ― 77 percent return ― due to poor re-entry or rehabilitation programs and a lack of educational opportunities for incarcerated students.
Russell Craig is no stranger to the criminal justice system. He was imprisoned on drug charges three different times. Now he’s trying to find relief in his art.
Craig’s work was on display at the Truth to Power exhibit here. Across four canvases, Craig plastered his sentencing and parole papers, documenting his 12 years in and out of county jails and prison. All of it intersected on an eye-catching portrait of himself.
“It’s the alpha and omega of my prison experience,” he said. He used pastels because they don’t completely cover the rap sheets underneath, a nod to the fact that even though he’s moving forward, the system, and society’s view of those who have served time, hold him back.
“The stigma of being a felon still lingers and I can’t get jobs,” he said.
Craig said the state and federal government need to create a better support system for people who want to change.
“I did my time, but even when I do it and I come out I’m still criminalized,” he said. “It kind of destroys you forever.”
If Congress does manage to pass criminal justice reform in both chambers this year, the fight won’t stop there. The bills currently up for consideration aren’t comprehensive enough that they address every systemic problem within law enforcement and the nation’s prisons.
Hawkins, the Coalition for Public Safety president, who dedicates much of his work to building up grass-roots support across the country and bringing in unlikely partners, wants to look at streamlining the process of moving people out of prison, and re-evaluating parole boards.
“There is a backlog because the system we have has incarcerated so many people that we don’t have a full body of mechanisms to release people,” he said, noting that parole boards are not fully staffed and equipped.
Jackson Sloan is looking into something similar. She’d like Obama to sign an executive order granting mass clemency for inmates that meet the four criteria the administration has set: 1. In on a first-time drug offense. 2. Served 10 years already. 3. No violent crimes, including actions in prison. 4. Would not have received sentence under today’s rules.
“I think if you’d sign an order like that there’s roughly 10,000 people it would affect,” Jackson Sloan estimated.
With the convention done, #cut50 will also be pivoting toward the states, focusing on pretrial detention. There are 450,000 people in U.S. jails right now who haven’t been convicted. And #cut50 has a re-entry summit coming up in California to talk to 100 corporations about hiring second-chance workers, or people with felonies.
As for how long it will take to reform a system barely turning away from its austere practices, Jackson Sloan isn’t sure, but says it comes down to “the public. You’ve got to move the public.”