A Change Has Come: Criminal Justice Reform on the Horizon

I can almost hear the slow drag of Sam Cooke singing, “It’s been a long time coming but I know a change gone come” as prison reform takes place in America. In October of this year change came as a bipartisan group of Senate leaders reached a deal to change the criminal justice system in America. That change will effectively reduce the prison sentences of non-violent drug offenders and limit reasons people face jail time. This change would also give judges more freedom to override mandatory minimums. For far too long parents have been stripped away from their children, husbands and wives separated, all in an effort to rid America of crime. It turns out that our criminal justice system may have caused more harm than it initially intended. Many families will now be blessed with a holiday treat, as loved ones who may have been missing at that dinner table will now be present.

While America only has 5% of the world’s population it has imprisoned or jailed 25% of its people- that’s more than any other industrial nation in the world.  In America, one third of African American men can expect to spend some time behind bars. Ta-Nehisi Coats described the impact of mass incarceration on the black family, “By 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison—and roughly half of those fathers were living in the same household as their kids when they were locked up.”

Racial profiling has also helped to increase the number of minorities in prison. Soon after the Ferguson protest, the Missouri attorney general released data that black drivers were the target of 86 percent of traffic stops in the city during 2013, and 93 percent of traffic stops that ended in an arrest.  In New York City, young black men in 2011 were involved in a 25% of stop-and-frisk cases, yet black men make up less than 2 percent of the city's population. In Boston from 2007-2010, blacks were 25% of the population, yet were involved in 63% of encounters with police. There’s a great need to retrain police officers to make them aware of possible racial bias and inform them of how to improve. Stanford Psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt notes that, “the reach of implicit bias, arising from America's tortured racial history, from culture and from still pervasive inequities, is powerful, enduring and under recognized, especially in the context of criminal justice.” This racial bias has disproportionately impacted African American communities.

While the absence of a father may be difficult for the family, the difficulty continues when the father is released but can’t find a job. It’s difficult enough for some college graduates to find a job in a changing economy, but having to check a box letting a potential federal employer know that you’ve spent time in prison turns the job search into mission impossible. Black men aren’t the only ones impacted, black women are also drawn into the prison pipeline. The Economist reported that, “at 113 per 100,000 the incarceration rate of black women is higher than the overall incarceration rate in France or Germany.”

America’s addiction to imprisoning its citizens has drastically impacted families and communities.

This addiction to imprisonment didn’t happen overnight. In 1973 under the leadership of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, New York became the first state to introduce mandatory sentencing for drug crimes. During  Ronald Reagan’s presidency the federal government and many states began introducing tougher sentences to deal with crack cocaine rather than powder cocaine. This crack down on crack lead to a strong racial biases in sentencing because crack cocaine was more prevalent in communities of color, while powder cocaine was prevalent in white communities.  Reagan’s war on drugs essentially built a pipeline to prison and it worked, very well.  From 1970 until today America’s prison and jail population quadrupled, from 300,000 to over 2.2 million.

So where do we go from here?

The government has begun to make strides in the right direction. The reform efforts introduced in the Senate earlier this year are a good start. Another example of a shift in attitude came earlier this year when the Department of Justice granted early release to 6,000 nonviolent prisoners nationwide.Over half will go to halfway houses before being put on supervised release. This early release of nonviolent offenders is a step in the right direction to help families and communities heal. Ronald Rodgers, 56, had 13 years remaining on his 40-year sentence but was released early on Friday, October 30. Nicole Jackson-Gray, the sister of Mr. Rodgers, told the New York Times, “I'm thrilled that for the first Thanksgiving in 28 years we'll be able to sit at the table together.” I suspect that many other families had reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

During a speech at the NAACP’s national conference in July, President Barack Obama said that the criminal justice system in America is, “a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation.” Mr. Obama was correct, America’s addiction to imprisoning its citizens has drastically impacted families and communities, but this was no accident, nor was it free. American taxpayers spend close to $80 billion per year to house inmates. That’s a whopping $34,000 per year per inmate, making it cheaper to go to college than prison. 

As legislative reform takes place, communities must prepare to welcome ex-offenders. There is a need for religious and community leaders to develop or support community reentry programs. Religious leaders can educate their congregants on how to welcome ex-offenders back into the religious community. Some people may be uneasy with the presence of ex-offenders and special attention should be paid to the psyche of both ex-offenders as well as those offended. There’s also a need to prepare families for challenges that may arise as a family member returns to the home. Religious organizations can plan family counseling to address the anxiety and fears that may arise.

Community organizations can develop job-training seminars for ex-offenders that equip them with skills needed in the market place. Along with preparing ex-offenders, community leaders can also host seminars for potential employers to remove stigmas regarding ex-offenders. A database of local companies willing to hire ex-offenderscould be developed. There is much to be done by both government and local leaders to deconstruct the prison pipeline.  

Mr. Obama was correct. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for,” he said.  In an effort to help former inmates get back on their feet, Mr. Obama has directed federal agencies to “ban the box” on federal applications, prohibiting them from asking prospective employees about their criminal histories. It’s great to see change taking place as America’s prisons are reformed, but there’s still more to do. There’s still a need to reduce the number of private prisons that often insist on a minimum-occupancy term in their contracts, thereby forcing states to imprison more people or risk breaching the contract. And wouldn’t it be great if after citizens have served their time, they were able to regain their voting privileges? It’s been a long time coming, but it’s encouraging to see change coming.

-Marquez Ball is the Senior Pastor of Uplift Church in Laurel, MD and is currently pursuing a doctorate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary