Candidates need to address these five issues to end our nation's reliance on mass incarceration.
By Emilce Quiroz
Amidst all the division and hostility that plagues U.S. politics today, there is increasing consensus among voters (if not always among elected officials) about one thing: mass incarceration is a stain on our democracy. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other country in the world. The issue is so exacerbated that if Oklahoma was its own country, it alone would have a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world.
As we near yet another election, it's imperative that we know where the candidates stand on the most essential facets of the criminal justice system that need to be addressed, uprooted, or transformed. You might hear them talk about sentencing, parole, policing, collateral consequences, or bail but what is often missed are issues around violence, alternatives to incarceration, survivor-centered solutions, and gender/racial equity. So here is some information about those issues that any candidate serious about taking on mass incarceration should be taking on.
We will never be able to make significant cuts to incarceration rates if we don't start taking on the question of violence. When more than 50% of all people currently incarcerated are incarcerated for a violent crime, we must ensure that sentencing reform (including the elimination of mandatory minimums and reductions of our draconian sentencing frameworks) includes people convicted of violence. To do so, it will help us to remember that punishment alone does not equal accountability. Taking responsibility for one's actions and taking steps to repair the harm done is real accountability. And more than that: we also need to address the violence that this country has inflicted on communities of color in order to fully address the root of violence if we someday wish to eradicate it.
2. Alternatives to Incarceration
Incarceration is not a one-size-fits-all solution to crime or safety. We need to increase our use of alternatives to incarceration that can uniquely address crime in a way that renders better results than our current criminal justice system (including, as noted above, for violent crime). Relying on an alternative to incarceration programs not only reduces recidivism, but it also saves taxpayer dollars. On average, states spend between $14,758 in Alabama, to $69,455 in New York to incarcerate one person annually. In New York, a 2016 report found that alternatives to incarceration helped save the state over 100 million dollars every year. All the money we invest in punishing people and taking them away from their families could instead be reallocated towards programs aimed at preventing violence before it happens, ensuring accountability and repair when it does, and providing resources to communities that have been plagued by vicious cycles of trauma and violence for decades.
3. Survivor-Centered Approaches to Safety
Any attempts to reform the criminal justice system must always take into consideration and center the voices of the full range of crime survivors. The current criminal justice system does not adequately take survivors into account or offer them the accountability, safety, or healing they deserve-much less so when they are a person of color. Oftentimes, when a person of color is harmed, they don't feel safe enough to report the incident to the police. If and when they do, they are too often further harmed or treated as somehow responsible for the harm they endured. If we truly cared about survivors and their safety, we would demand a seat for them at every table where policy is discussed and provide racially equitable responses that allow all survivors a chance to heal.
4. Racial Inequity
Countless studies have shown that not only are Black and Latinx people incarcerated at a higher rate than white people, Black and Latinx people tend to receive longer prison sentences than white people for the same crime. Communities of color have been the most impacted by racist policies that drove mass incarceration to the teeming rates we are battling today. From slavery, to convict leasing, to redlining, these policies have harbored trauma and violence in communities of color while interfering with their work to grow or heal. This systemic racism needs to be addressed and policies need to be put in place to repair the harm that we as a nation have allowed to damage our communities for so long.
5. Gender Inequity
Women are the fastest-growing population of incarcerated people. A 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative showed that the incarceration rate of women is 8 times higher than it was in 1980. 80% of incarcerated women are mothers and most of them are the primary caregivers of their children, extending the impact of their imprisonment across generations. Moreover, incarceration has an outsized impact on trans women. For trans women, it is not uncommon for them to be imprisoned with people based on their assigned sex at birth rather than their actual gender identity, which can further expose them to violence, abuse, harassment, and even rape. It is critical that any criminal justice reform attend to the particular needs and experiences of women.
Stay tuned for part two of this piece where we discuss sentencing, parole, policing, collateral consequences, and bail.