Criminal justice reform is a broad term that encompasses all the necessary changes to our criminal-legal system; from juvenile justice and bail reform to the banning of solitary confinement and improving prison conditions. I did not know our criminal justice system and prisons needed change until recent years. Growing up, I believed all men were created equally, tried equally when they broke the law and sentenced accordingly. I believed that after release from jail, individuals that really wanted to change, especially once they used their sentences in prison to better themselves, simply returned to society and moved on with their lives.
Recently I learned this is not the reality. I want to share 5 things I have learned about criminal justice reform during my first month at Flikshop.
1. The US has a high rate of recidivism:
I was surprised to learn that a large majority of individuals return to prison within their first year of release. Recidivism is the word used to describe an individual returning to jail or prison after being released, and the United States has an embarrassingly high rate of it. In the past four decades the federal Bureau of Prisons has experienced a more than seven-fold increase in its population in the past four decades. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44% of previously incarcerated individuals return before the first year out of prison. The purpose of prison is to rehabilitate individuals and return them to society but most of us are questioning if whether our current system is doing that, or not. I have come to learn that the criminal justice system may be failing the individuals trapped within it, the families affected by it and society as a whole.
2. There are laws in place that are doing more harm than good:
Two of the worst policies I've found in my research are mandatory minimums and three strike laws.
Mandatory minimums are sentences that courts are required to give to individuals convicted of particular crimes, despite the unique circumstances of the offense. This law was put in place to promote uniformity in sentencing but it has created an unequal system. Minimums have restricted judges and placed the power in prosecutors hands, creating extreme sentences and prison overcrowding. Federal judges are becoming increasingly frustrated with mandatory minimums because they limit their judicial freedom to give sentences based on individual cases. In recent years, judges have slowly begun to move away from these mandatory minimums and regain control of their judicial freedom. Trends show a widening gap between the average guideline minimum and the average sentence imposed.
Three strike laws require harsh sentencing, including life imprisonment, after an individual has committed three crimes. This is another policy that limits judges freedom in individual cases, leads to extreme sentences and contributes to the overcrowding of prisons. Three strike laws are increasingly becoming controversial and many advocates are pushing for states to change them.
3. There have been recent positive changes in legislation:
Policymakers at the federal level are joining in on the movement towards criminal justice reform, two major pieces of legislation that have the potential to create major change are the Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act and First Step Implementation Act of 2021.
The MORE Act, recently passed by the House of Representatives, shows that reforming the criminal justice system is on the list of priorities. This bill would change the classification of marijuana and remove the criminal penalty for manufacturing, distributing or possessing it. Additionally, it would allow for the reassessment of past convictions related to marijuana offenses, which would impact hundreds of people that are sitting in cells today for cannabis convictions.
The First Step implementation Act is a great start and will potentially change sentencing laws by reducing mandatory minimums for drug related offenses, the process of trying minors as adults and ensure the timely release of numerous incarcerated individuals. Lasting structural change happens when lawmakers begin to turn their attention toward a particular issue. The recent introduction of these bills indicate a shift in the right direction toward a new system.
4. Organizations and advocates are working hard to create change:
Change at the federal level is the direct result of the advocacy of individuals and organizations. Here are some notable names of people making changes that you should know:
Topeka K. Sam: created The Ladies of Hope Ministries in order to help disenfranchised and marginalized women transitioning back into society through education, entrepreneurship, spiritual empowerment and advocacy. She is also the co-founder of Hope House NYC, a safe house for formerly incarcerated women in the Bronx. Topeka advocates for alternatives to incarceration and her mission is to create pathways to success for women and girls.
Teresa Hodge: alongside her daughter, Laurin Leonard (Hodge), co-founded Mission: Launch, Inc. a non-profit focused on introducing technology and entrepreneurship to previously incarcerated individuals to ensure self-sufficiency. Her organization manages the Rebuilding Re-Entry Coalition, a citizen-led initiative to create a more just and inclusive society for returning citizens.
Tony Lewis Jr: has been an advocate for the past 16 years dedicated to empowering and uplifting men, women and children impacted by mass incarceration. He is a community leader, workforce development specialist and author. He recently cofounded DC or Nothing Inc, with Angel Gregio, a nonprofit that advocates for social justice, equity and inclusion for Native Washingtonians.
Xavier McElrath-Bey: works as the Co-Executive director and National Advocate of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth where he fights to end life without parole for children in America, he has played a role in ending this practice in several states. Through this organization he co-founded the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) which seeks to promote the stories and voices of leaders who were incarcerated as youth. Xavier's TEDx Talk is incredible!
Scott Budnick: founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a coalition dedicated to changing lives and communities through the advocacy of fair policies in the juvenile and criminal justice system and providing supportive network and reentry services to returning citizens. He is currently the CEO of One Community, LLC a film, television and news media co-financing company that uses storytelling to ignite global change.
Craig Haney: a social psychologist and professor that is using his doctorate in psychology to improve the criminal justice system. Throughout his career he has conducted extensive research on topics such as the death penalty and solitary confinement and uses his findings to highlight necessary areas of change. He has testified to Congress and the Supreme Court because he believes class action lawsuits and constitutional challenges have the best impact on structural changes.
Alongside individuals, numerous organizations are dedicated to advocacy work. The Sentencing Project is an organization that is dedicated to changing the narrative surrounding crime and punishment. They are advocates for effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults. This is done through initiatives and research that promote racial, economic and gender justice.
Other organizations like The Reform Alliance are working towards reforming probation and parole by changing laws, structures and culture in order to create real opportunities for returning citizens to thrive.
5. Families are important:
One of the greatest change agents available to prison reform is close family relationships. Research shows that close and positive family relationships reduce recidivism, improve an individual’s likelihood of finding employment and ease the overall harm to relational ties while separated.
Flikshop is doing an amazing job keeping families that have loved ones that are incarcerated connected to each other, each photo and message on the app is printed on a real tangible postcard and shipped to any person in any jail or prison in the country. They have helped to connect over 170,000 families around the country, and have even begun connecting potential employers to talent that is returning back to their communities from prison.
There is still a long way to go in this fight, but I know that a reformed criminal justice system is possible. The small ripples of change evident in state and federal legislature and the determination of individual and organizational advocates give me hope for this change. I will continue to wait for change, but in the meantime I plan to continue to self-educate and learn ways to get involved in the fight.