THE BLOG
12/18/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

The 'Punishment Economy' Must End

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During the past several weeks, protesters in Ferguson, New York City and across the country have shut down public transit, freeways, malls and many other institutions in response to the state-sanctioned violence that resulted in the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and countless others.

Much of the anger has been directed at police and rightly so. The actions of officers like Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, Tim Loehmann and many others showed a callous disregard for the lives of Black people.

But it is important to remember that the actions of police, the strategies used by prosecutors and the decisions of grand juries do not exist in isolation of each other. Our entire justice system devalues the lives of Black people specifically and people of color broadly and for these injustices to stop happening, the cycle of criminalization and incarceration that entraps people of color must end.

In too many instances, police officers respond with violence to ordinary situations involving people of color. Tamir Rice was sitting on a swing at a park with a toy gun when he was killed. John Crawford was walking around a Walmart with a BB gun and Eric Garner was allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.

Similarly, our justice system's first response to a social problem is to punish the person who is suffering.

In a punishment economy, all social ills have a punishment solution. Right now, every social sector is experiencing the impact: from schools that use the criminal justice system to address classroom discipline issues, to the decimation of mental health services for poor people, which have resulted in our nation's jails being the primary "service provider" for people with mental health issues.

The rise of the punishment economy came about at the same time as the decline of social safety nets. The result is that vulnerable community members have been shut out. When single mother Shanesha Taylor left her two kids in her car while she went on a job interview because she could not afford child care, she was arrested.

When the state government in Mississippi had millions of dollars in federal child-care funding for low-income families, the state gave a $14.7 million contract to Xerox to develop a security system requiring mothers using child care vouchers to scan their fingerprints when they picked up their children.

And when Oakland unexpectedly had a $29 million tax windfall to incorporate into its budget this year, the City Council voted to use some of that money to fund a third police academy and expand the city's gunshot detection system.

The result of these punishment solutions is the mass incarceration of people in low-income communities of color, broken families and fewer resources being allocated to already disenfranchised communities.

In many states, when information is gathered for the census, people in prison are counted as residents of the county that the prison is located in rather than the county that they are actually from. Census data are used to determine the number of seats that district will get in Congress as well as the allocation of about $400 billion in programs and services such as school construction, housing and community development, re-entry programs, unemployment benefits and job training.

Mass incarceration has deprived the communities that need these resources the most and simultaneously weakened the political power that the communities have to address the problem.

We are witnessing a destructive cycle at work.

Discriminatory police practices enmesh people of color in the justice system, excessively harsh punishments and sentences keep people there. Court costs, fees and fines mire their families in poverty. A Justice for Families study revealed that one in three women with a loved one in the juvenile justice system had faced the difficult choice between paying for basic necessities like food and making court-related payments.

Instead of investing in resources and opportunities that would help people succeed, the justice system punishes people at every misstep.

Now, the punishment economy and the racial injustice caused by it have extended far beyond the justice system. After Eric Garner was choked by Daniel Pantaleo, he lay unresponsive on the city sidewalk and emergency medical responders failed to administer CPR or provide any treatment to him.

The inaction of even those who are supposed to care for society's weakest members illustrates that the devaluation of Black life has permeated every institution in this country.

The United States has a long history of racialized violence and those in power have not yet been held accountable. They also have not demonstrated a commitment to changing the circumstances that lead to this violence. We need an externally monitored truth and reconciliation commission that addresses how current and historical racialized violence has impacted human rights.

It is only by acknowledging our past and recognizing its continuity in the present that we can finally enact the type of structural change that we need so that all life is valued.

Specific, individual reforms are also necessary, but they must be system-wide.

We need reform within police departments. But without also making reforms to sentencing, parole, bail and practices within prisons and jails, injustices like the ones that happened to Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Mike Brown will continue to occur.

To change our punishment economy to one that provides care, the state must move funding toward support. Funding that goes toward the militarization of police and prisons and jails should instead be reallocated to community-based programs, job training, education, health care and restorative justice initiatives.

There is public support for initiatives that seek to decrease the prison population and criminalization of people of color, as shown by the passage of Proposition 47 in California. Proposition 47, which passed with 58 percent of the vote, reclassified nonviolent crimes like drug possession and petty theft as misdemeanors instead of felonies and dedicated the savings on imprisonment toward schools, victim services and mental health and drug treatment.

We need to capitalize on the growing support for these types of justice reinvestment initiatives and use this moment to spread similar laws across the country.

The Ella Baker Center is working with 20 organizations in 13 states on a community-driven research project documenting the economic impacts of mass incarceration on families. The results of this report, which will be released in September 2015, will illustrate what resources communities of color who have been marginalized by mass incarceration need to thrive and succeed.

We will work with organizations across the country to spread "Half the Sentence, Twice the Success" policies like Proposition 47. These initiatives will reinvest savings from sentencing reform into job training, health care, education and restorative justice.

This is a time for radical change and truly progressive politicians must respond as such. During the midterm elections, those who catered to the interests of moderates lost, while racial and economic justice oriented policies like increasing the minimum wage and decreasing the prison population won.

It's time to seize on the opportunity we have to shift the country instead of shifting ourselves to the middle.

We should not squander the momentum that is building on minor reforms like requiring police to wear body cameras and Attorney General Eric Holder's new racial profiling guidelines that don't address racial profiling by local police, TSA or Border Patrol agents in the Southwest.

When youth activists from Ferguson met with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Holder in early December, their demands included not only appointing independent prosecutors to prosecute police officers and the demilitarization of local police departments, but also an increase in funding for community-led restorative justice programs and the establishment of community review boards to monitor police misconduct.

Now is the time, and youth are leading the way: We need greater change.

This essay first appeared on Equal Voice News.