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It’s Time to Stop Mass Incarceration

Find out what you can do to help your state reduce mass incarceration.

  • Julia Bowling
April 28, 2015

Cross-posted on Equal Voice

In March, the Justice Depart­ment released a shock­ing report about the Ferguson Police Depart­ment and crim­inal justice system. 

The report found repeated viol­a­tions of consti­tu­tional rights, includ­ing stop­ping and hand­cuff­ing people without prob­able cause, using stun guns without provoca­tion, frequent racial slurs and a court system that dispro­por­tion­ately imposes fees, fines and impris­on­ment for debt on people of color.

Accord­ing to the report, court fines are a large source of Ferguson’s revenue. In fact, emails showed city offi­cials pushed for more tick­ets and fines. These fines and fees have seri­ous consequences for people.

“Poor, mostly African-Amer­ican resid­ents described being trapped in the court system for years as they are repeatedly jailed,” one report said, “even when trying to make payments.”

Fines and fees create an over­whelm­ing chal­lenge to those who cannot afford them. Non-payment creates crim­inal justice debt that follows indi­vidu­als and seri­ously limits economic oppor­tun­ity. Debt enforce­ment leads to bad credit, which can prevent an indi­vidu­al’s abil­ity to secure hous­ing.

It can result in suspen­sion of a driv­ing license, which impedes someone’s abil­ity to secure a job and lead a normal life. Fees also prolong entan­gle­ment in the crim­inal justice system, as people are arres­ted and jailed as punish­ment for not being able to pay.

Ferguson resid­ents are not alone. Most states charge inmates for their jail stay, elec­tronic monit­or­ing, proba­tion or super­vi­sion and public defense. Not only are those entangled in the system facing the poten­tial loss of their free­dom, they are increas­ingly expec­ted to foot the bill for the process. Fail­ure to pay these fines perpetu­ates a cycle of poverty and incar­cer­a­tion that worsen the coun­try’s mass incar­cer­a­tion prob­lem.

Despite the fact that mass incar­cer­a­tion has little to no effect on redu­cing crime, the U.S. still spends tens of billions of dollars a year on our prison system — $80 billion in 2010 alone — not to mention the costs to affected indi­vidu­als and communit­ies. An arrest or night in jail can cause one to miss work and lead to loss of employ­ment.

Outstand­ing warrants for unpaid traffic tick­ets show up on back­ground checks and hold people back from getting a job, paying the fine itself and moving on with their lives.

In the long term, a crim­inal record reduces chances of find­ing work and causes a person’s wages to fall. Amer­ic­ans who have cycled through the system and “paid their debt” to soci­ety face harsh job markets. Famil­ies with loved ones in prison are also affected.

One in nine Black chil­dren has a parent in prison, lead­ing to a gener­a­tion of Black chil­dren dispro­por­tion­ately bear­ing the effects of parental incar­cer­a­tion. In fact, one in 28 chil­dren has an incar­cer­ated parent, almost one child in every classroom in Amer­ica.

But this is where concerned people can make a differ­ence. Grass­roots move­ments drive the heart of the solu­tions. Groups of engaged and motiv­ated people can rally behind a cause and motiv­ate lawmakers to actu­ally pass reforms that change the status quo.

It is time to get involved or to do so in new ways. Find out the posi­tions of your local offi­cials on crim­inal justice reform. Support fund­ing for educa­tion and, in partic­u­lar, fund­ing to combat inequal­ity. We know that gradu­at­ing from high school signi­fic­antly reduces the like­li­hood of incar­cer­a­tion.

Stud­ies show that African-Amer­ican men who do not finish high school are more likely than not to spend time incar­cer­ated. And most import­antly, spread the know­ledge. Read about and discuss racial bias in the crim­inal justice system. Get involved to reduce our incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion.

Activ­ists have had an incred­ible impact in push­ing states to reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion. For example, a grass­roots campaign in Cali­for­nia passed Propos­i­tion 47, which reclas­si­fied some minor felon­ies to misde­mean­ors, redu­cing and elim­in­at­ing prison time for low-level offend­ers.

In New York state, activ­ists are waging a campaign to raise the age of crim­inal respons­ib­il­ity, so that 16 and 17 year olds will no longer be tried as adults.

In response to the non-indict­ments of two White police officers – Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson and New York Police Depart­ment’s Daniel Panta­leo – people took to the streets to express their concern with the status quo. The #Black­LivesMat­ter move­ment mobil­ized thou­sands in cities across the coun­try in a months-long dissent to demand account­ab­il­ity and fair­ness in the U.S. justice system.

We’re enter­ing a new age in which crim­inal justice reform is one of the major polit­ical issues at the federal, state and local levels of govern­ment. Ferguson, a symbol of so much that is wrong with the rela­tion­ship between crim­inal justice policy and communit­ies, also provides reas­ons for hope. Increased voter turnout there was integ­ral to the elec­tion of two Black repres­ent­at­ives to the Ferguson City Coun­cil.

But the desire for change does not stop at getting out the vote. There is also broad support in St. Louis County for a newly-created part­ner­ship to exam­ine police-community rela­tions with the goal to system­at­ic­ally improve them. Better Together, a St. Louis-based grass­roots project, and the Police Exec­ut­ive Research Forum (PERF), a national police research organ­iz­a­tion, held popu­lar community forums to hear opin­ions and analyze data to develop a more ideal poli­cing strategy for St. Louis.

In Ferguson, and in communit­ies across the coun­try, people can help increase momentum for crim­inal justice reform. Char­ging excess­ive fines to fund a govern­ing struc­ture that exacer­bates economic inequal­ity is not the answer. Find out what you can do to help your state reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion.