In the past 10 years, unlikely allies have united to advocate for an end to America’s addiction to incarceration. From law enforcement to community advocates to economists, from the left and the right, calls for reform have brought national attention to the stunning increase in our jail and prison populations over the past four decades. We have seen striking results: from California, where criminal law reform has reduced our jail and prison populations by more than 30,000 men and women in six years, to New York, where New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to closing the notorious Rikers Island Jail Complex.
Now we need to fundamentally transform our corrections’ orientation from punishing failure to promoting success, by affording individuals in the community justice system the respect and support they need to live, work and love.
We still need to shine a bright and steady light on a U.S. system that locks up as many as 1 in 100 adults, accounting for 22 percent of the world’s prison population, according to the Centre on Prison Studies at the United Kingdom’s University of Essex. At the same time, we need to pay more attention to the part of the criminal justice system that affects the greatest number of Americans: community corrections.
Commonly thought of as parole and probation, community corrections has outpaced the explosion in incarceration. At its peak in 2009, 5 million Americans were on parole or probation — more than double the number of individuals locked up in our prisons and jails.
The restrictions imposed on people under supervision, such as prohibiting them from obtaining a driver’s license, routinely limit, rather than promote, their ability to work, attend school and meaningfully reunite with and support their families. Too often, the very systems purported to facilitate re-entry into society and help maintain community ties do the opposite, setting people up to fail and sending them deeper into the criminal justice system.
Over the last three years, a group of 29 people — including the two of us — met at an executive session at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to explore the role of community corrections in the interest of justice and public safety. We found strong agreement on the principles upon which our community corrections systems must be based: those of American democracy.
Community corrections should embody the values and aspirations upon which American government was founded and our communities thrive. Not just fairness, transparency, and judicious use of state power, but also the pursuit of liberty and opportunity, human agency and dignity, and meaningful integration in civic life.
These ideals are not at odds with the mission of corrections to promote the sustained well-being and safety of our communities. Rather, they are the best way to achieve that mission.
The concept of grounding our corrections systems in the ideals of our democratic society is a simple one — but a paradigm shift is required to embody those ideals. A comprehensive list of these needed changes is available in the newly released document prepared by the Executive Session on Community Corrections.
Transformative work in community corrections will find fertile ground. In San Francisco, for example, our criminal justice agencies have joined forces to create a different court for young adult defendants that connects them with jobs, housing and the other supports that all young people need to start adulthood on a positive path.
Across the country, JustLeadershipUSA’s Leading with Conviction fellows, formerly incarcerated men and women who participate in an intensive yearlong advanced leadership training initiative, provide a national snapshot of what is possible when people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system are empowered and connected to resources. The fellows represent a diversity of success — some organize vans to take people to visit their loved ones in faraway prisons, some mobilize faith-based groups to push back on immoral policies, and some work in government changing the system from the inside. All are examples of the success that is possible — both in people’s individual lives and in the criminal justice reform movement — if the right investments are made.
Justice reform in America is at a crossroads. A bitter partisan divide, scare tactics and false choices about public safety threaten to erode the positive changes of the last decade. While the national political landscape may seem bleak, community corrections is controlled by exactly that — local communities. Our shared democratic imperatives offer a foundation for consensus among unlikely allies — a look back that enables us to collectively move forward.
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!