We the (Young) People Bulletin: Criminal Justice Reform
For more details on Washington D.C. Councilmember Robert White’s criminal justice reform bill, be sure to check out the We the (Young) People Podcast!
Background on the criminal justice system
The criminal justice system is actually thousands of systems including federal, state and local jurisdictions that each present their own challenges and opportunities to reform.
The US only has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the prison population.
The prison structure in the US disproportionately impacts members of minority communities, largely because of “tough on crime” policies leading to mass incarceration. 70% of all people in federal prisons are African American or Latinx.
25% of all arrested or incarcerated individuals are struggling with serious mental illness.
Background on criminal justice reform
Van Jones argues that 2019 was the first year where bipartisan criminal justice reform was actually possible because of cultural shifts and values that Democrats and Republicans hold that make criminal justice reform a possibility.
While it's a complicated issue, California’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system through ending cash bail and reducing the sentences for misdemeanors has resulted in fewer prisoners over time.
The First Step Act, passed by Congress in December of 2018, has resulted in almost 500 people being released from prison, but the infrastructure to support them after they leave is not yet sufficiently developed.
YEOs who are making criminal justice reforms
Young Elected Officials all over the United States are working to improve the criminal justice system in their own communities. Here are some examples:
Councilmember Robert C. White (@robertwhite_DC - Washington, D.C.): In June 2019, Councilmember White introduced the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019. For more information, listen to this month’s episode of We The (Young) People Podcast!
State Representative Shevrin Jones (@shevrinjones - Florida’s 101st District): In January 2019, Representative Jones introduced and co-sponsored HB 49 - The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which was signed into law on June 7th, 2019. This makes menstrual products free for incarcerated women, who previously had limited access to menstrual products and had to purchase them at above-market rates. This bill provides free menstrual products and other protections to incarcerated women. He is also working with an organization called Dignity Florida to improve protections for pregnant women imprisoned in Florida, including limits on restrictions used and pat-downs.
Alderwoman Jameesha Harris (@ward2harris - New Bern NC, Ward 2): In March 2019, Alderwoman Harris worked with local nonprofit Wash Away Unemployment, local elected officials, and community activists to create a “Ban The Box” initiative, which culminated in the “Resolution To Ban The Box In Support Of Fair Hiring Practices.” This resolution makes sure The City of New Bern, North Carolina will not conduct a criminal background check unless necessary, until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. It strongly encourages local businesses in New Bern to do the same. This step is important in encouraging the state of North Carolina, and more states, to “ban the box,” which serves as an integral part in our ongoing fight to help marginalized and disadvantaged communities from being further criminalized and unfairly punished, and to increase equity across the board.
Councilmember Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar- Austin, TX, District 4): In January 2020, the city of Austin voted to eliminate drug testing for low-level pot cases, which would end penalties and prosecution in the city. This resolution dictates that the Austin police will not spend city money on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish hemp from marijuana since hemp is now legal in Austin. This will result in fewer arrests and fines for specifically members of minority communities, who are disproportionately disadvantaged by unfair marijuana enforcement.
6 women State Representatives in Georgia, including YEOs Renitta Shannon (@RenittaShannon), Park Cannon (@CannonFor58), Erica Thomas (@itsericathomas), and Bee Ngyuen (@BeeforGeorgia) took historic action by filing a bill that requires law enforcement departments to create a “use of force” database that the public can access. This bill was inspired by police shooting cases in Georgia.
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Talking points on criminal justice reform
The current criminal justice system, both federally and locally, disproportionately impacts people of color, and we need to work to reverse the “tough on crime” attitude
1 in 5 people are imprisoned because of drug-related crimes. While the majority of people are in prisons for violent crimes, there are more arrests for drug-related offenses. Marijuana legalization will result in fewer arrests nationwide.
Incarcerated individuals have a right to affordable healthcare and hygiene products, including menstrual products for women. A recent article by Mother Jones highlights the experiences of women in prison who had to pay $7 for a small box of tampons and were only given 10 pads for a whole month, with no opportunity to get more of either product.
While most large police departments utilize body cameras, only 31% of small police departments with part-time officers have body cameras, which means that those small police departments have less accountability.
Cash bail ties a person’s ability to leave prison to the amount of money they have or someone they know has. This results in more incarcerated individuals.
Mass incarceration does not result in fewer violent crimes, especially when incarcerated people are homeless or in poverty.