Piper Kerman is not shy in sharing about her time as an inmate. Since serving a 13-month prison sentence for felony money-laundering more than a decade ago, Kerman has used her experiences to advocate for criminal-justice reform.
Kerman, author of the memoir “Orange is the New Black,” shared her story with a crowd of county leaders from across the United States on Saturday evening at the 82nd National Association of Counties convention at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
It is counties, Kerman said, who are the most important players in the criminal-justice system and its reform. As the ones on the ground, counties are the first to know the challenges within the system are vast.
Because of insufficient resources for overwhelming demands, “county and city jails are often worse than most state jails,” Kerman said.
Overwhelming demand is right: incarceration rates increased 650 percent for women and 419 percent for men over the last four decades, she said.
Those increases, Kerman said, stem from America’s ideas on punishment, such as lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenders and sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole.
“Is that harsh punishment getting the results we want?” she asked the county leaders in attendance Saturday.
Each year, 700,000 people are released from prison. Upon leaving, Kerman said many former inmates face a complete lack of guidance in navigating post-prison life.
Having lived in Columbus for the last two-and-a-half years, Kerman said she’s seen the ways Franklin County has embraced criminal-justice reform. She praised the county’s focus on reentry for recently released inmates, saying it should be a standard for all counties to follow.
In 2012, Franklin County became the first in the state to remove questions regarding criminal records from job applications. Some local businesses, such as fried chicken joint Hot Chicken Takeover, have made it their mission to hire employees who have been previously incarcerated.
The county takes part in the Stepping Up initiative, a NACo program that works to reduce the number of adults with mental illnesses and substance-use disorders in jail, Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown said.
“We’re doing a great job with planning and keeping people out of jail who shouldn’t be there,” Brown said. “We could do better, but we’re doing a great job.”
Despite the county’s positive steps towards reform, Kerman said the state could do more.
“Ohio has a ways to go,” she said.
Kerman pointed to diversion and community accountability programs on the front end as a way to keep more people out of prison cells.
“There isn’t a county that couldn’t benefit from diversion,” Kerman said.
A lack of detox beds in hospitals and treatment centers makes diversion difficult in Franklin County, Brown said.
“There are not enough treatment beds for people to detox or for people in a mental health crisis to calm down in rather than get them arrested,” she said. “We don’t have enough beds to divert people to.”
For successful prison reform, Kerman said counties need to work to level the playing field everywhere, from funding indigent defense teams to keeping courts fair.
“A system that privileges some people’s safety and freedom over other people’s safety and freedom,” she said, “is simply not a justice system.”
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