Criminal justice reform has headlined the news on several occasions recently. Two of these stories reveal where our government’s priorities lie when it comes to reforming the criminal justice system. What are these priorities, and how can we ensure that our reform efforts support directly-impacted communities and improve society as a whole?
The first major headline on reform was the House’s recent passing of the FIRST STEP Act.
While this prison reform bill had bipartisan support in the House, it’s unlikely to move forward in the Senate and become law. Prison reform is desperately needed in this country, but I personally am relieved that this bill will most likely not become law. Instead of addressing root causes of incarceration and attempting to reduce the number of people that go into prison, the bill focuses on allowing the Bureau of Prisons to expand its monitoring of justice-involved people in their communities largely through contracts with private prisons corporations. Without reducing the number of people in custody, the bill allows for the BoP to expand its control beyond prison walls.
Though the bill has a provision for funding reentry programs, it simply doesn’t allocate enough. And, it doesn’t address the most important problem with our criminal justice system: the fact that people from communities that have the least resources are the ones most likely to be caught up by the system. To be sure, we are a nation of individuals, and yes, those individuals can overcome the most tremendous obstacles through willpower, talent, hard work, and luck, but ultimately, the data does not lie. In this country, those who have the least are punished the most harshly.
Another harmful component of The FIRST STEP Act is its reliance on risk assessments tools to be developed by the current Attorney General’s office. Risk assessment can often be a biased way to assure that those who are the most privileged get access to earlier release. The FIRST STEP Act, a deeply flawed bill, shows that our priorities in reform lay more with expanding the power to punish individuals, than they do with addressing the systemic issues that lead to incarceration in the first place.
The second headline was about President Trump commuting the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson after hearing Kim Kardashian West’s advocacy on Johnson’s behalf.
Johnson was serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, and perfectly illustrates how those with the least are punished the most. When she was charged with a crime, Johnson was a recently divorced mother of five who, in the two years after she lost her job, filed for bankruptcy, had her home foreclosed, and whose youngest child died. The emotional and financial pressure caused her to make what she referred to as “the biggest mistake of her life” and she became involved in a drug-trafficking scheme as a mule.
Had she come from a different community, she might have been able to reach out to those around her for help, but the avenues and community supports that were available to her were limited.
Though Johnson didn’t directly buy or sell drugs, this was during the height of the war on drugs, and President Reagan had just signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law. This law punished crack cocaine dealers more harshly than powder cocaine dealers because of crack cocaine’s more destructive impact on communities where it was sold. But the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which further criminalized what we now understand to be a public health crisis, did not address the root causes of drug abuse and instead helped build the massive prison population we see today. Drug abuse was seen not as a social issue that could be resolved by investment in communities, but instead as an individual moral failing to be solved through punishment — and in Johnson’s case, that punishment included a life sentence for a non-violent crime.
The commutation of Johnson’s sentence reflects our persistent failure to address the root causes of our problems: releasing one person is not enough. No doubt, I applaud Kardashian’s compassionate and charitable action, but there are tens of thousands of people like Alice Marie Johnson, and they deserve support whether Kim Kardashian West has heard their story or not.
Both of these recent criminal justice cases highlight that we cannot continue to rely on punishment to serve justice moving forward.
Not only does this model fail incarcerated individuals, who have little opportunity for growth during their punishment, but it also fails the communities to which these individuals will eventually return. By continuing to use punishment instead of community investment as a form of justice, we perpetuate cycles of crime and poverty. In purely financial terms, recidivism is costly — and these numbers do not take into account the human costs for communities that have high rates of incarceration. Current recidivism rates are astronomically high and while the logic of "those in prison are bad people who deserve punishment" is easy to fall back on, the reality of the situation is far more nuanced, complex, and difficult to grapple with. In the face of an increasingly complex world, do we stick our heads in the sand and keep trying "solutions" that have repeatedly failed, or do we rise to the challenge of doing the hard work to create a criminal justice system that works for all of us?
This reality requires a justice system that deals with those nuances and gives people opportunities for growth. My work with College & Community Fellowship and my own involvement with the criminal justice system has led me to the conclusion that many who become entangled with the CJ system lack the proper support to live productive, civically engaged lives, and that people do want to contribute to society and give back to their communities. That’s why we focus on systemic interventions solutions that help reintegrate people who have been incarcerated, both through education and by making sure that employers are prepared to bring the formerly incarcerated into their workforces. It’s not the easiest work and it requires a great deal of patience, resilience, and understanding of the realities lived by the women we work with, but what we have to show for it is a sustainable, successful program, and communities that are strengthened by the transformation and education of their members.
Meaningful criminal justice reform must focus on reducing the prison population and providing adequate services to those incarcerated. Punishment and prison walls alone will never deliver justice. Justice can only be served when we as a nation face the realities of the monstrous system we’ve created.
Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. An alumna of CCF’s program, Nixon advocates nationally for the return of college-level education to our nation's prisons and is an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals impacted by mass incarceration. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. Nixon received her B.S. from the State University of New York and is currently a creative non-fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Vivian Nixon has written articles for Vice, HuffPost, and Boston Globe among other outlets. She has appeared on several MSNBC news shows and is a regular speaker on criminal justice reform panels. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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