It’s 4:00 AM. I’m flying home to Chicago from a Criminal Justice Reform Summit in LA. The Summit co-hosted by Rolling Stone and Variety united the entertainment, philanthropic, advocacy and policymaking communities to address injustices in our criminal justice system and what can be done to repair it.
At the summit, Bernard Noble, a former inmate who served thirteen years without the possibility of parole, spoke of the horrors he faced during his time in prison after he was arrested for carrying less than two joints of marijuana. His sentence was especially harsh and draconian, considering other states were legalizing marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use. He languished in prison for years and was released at the age of 51. Another audience member had been convicted of murder and spent 19 years paying for a crime he never committed, as proven by exonerating DNA evidence. The thought of spending one night in prison is terrifying, and these men spent decades of their lives in 6-by-8 foot cells.
The U.S., which leads the world in the incarceration of its citizens, has approximately over 2.2 million people behind bars. In 2016, a total of 166 wrongfully convicted people were declared innocent. Over the years there have been thousands of wrongfully convicted prisoners and even more people who have served punitive sentences grossly disproportionate to their crime.
I am presently working with a 43-year-old father of five, who was sentenced to twenty years for a nonviolent first-time drug offense. His wife, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, is battling her illness as she struggles to care for her family. The excessive sentence means that he is slated to remain in federal prison for an additional seventeen years, until December 21, 2032. It is bizarre that the median sentences for kidnapping (seventeen years), sexual abuse (ten years), child pornography (eight months), arson (five months), and robbery (five months) are all considerably shorter than his.
The aforementioned cases are merely a stark reminder of our defective criminal justice system. If you are interested in a vivid retelling of the troubling machinery of our broken system and the policies that have lead us here, I recommend listening to the third season of Sara Koenig’s podcast Serial, where she follows the courts in Cleveland, Ohio for one year.
Individual injustices do not just affect one person, but have a ripple effect on the lives of one’s children, parents, siblings, extended family and communities. Young children are innocent victims, paying a steep price for the mistakes of their parents. Having a parent in prison can impact a child’s mental health, social behavior, and educational prospects. Financial hardship, foster care, severe trauma related to their parent’s arrest, bullying and exposure to drug and alcohol abuse are just a few horrors these children endure. All this is compounded by the social stigma associated with having a parent in prison.
The collateral damage does not stop there. Post-incarceration, one’s ability to obtain a job and support his or her family is very slim. Many employers discriminate against those formerly incarcerated, thus making it even more difficult for them to attempt to reintegrate into society. A tarnished reputation can often lead to a loss of self-esteem and a downward spiral of extreme depression and even suicide. An example of this cycle of depression that former convicts face post-incarceration is depicted in a Netflix documentary mini-series titled The Kalief Browder Story.
Any discussion of criminal justice reform would be incomplete without at least some mention of the interplay between addiction and incarceration. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, over 46% of inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. That’s nearly one out of two inmates! The FBI’s most recent Uniform Crime Report states that over 1.4 million arrests were made in 2017 simply for drug possession, making it the number one cause of arrest in this country. The magnitude of this is mind-blowing, as most Americans agree that “we can’t incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.” Ironically, some inmates even develop an addiction in prison, the very place they are meant to be mending themselves in preparation of rejoining society as contributing members.
In my work with Project Tikvah, a division of the Aleph Institute aimed at breaking the vicious cycle of drug addiction, mental illness and incarceration among struggling youths, I have seen what can happen when one is sent to prison at a young age. One of my formerly incarcerated colleagues served seventeen years in prison starting at age 20, developed an addiction while incarcerated and recently died of an overdose. Often, a lengthy prison sentence can be replaced with treatment in an appropriate facility thereby producing better outcomes for the offender and society as a whole.
Despite the complexities of our system, there are some reasonable solutions. Drug Courts are specialized programs that provide rehabilitation combined with supervision as a sentencing alternative for people with serious substance and mental health disorders. Drug Courts maintain a hands-on approach to addicts, ordering them into treatment, rather than perpetuating the revolving door of court and prison. Offenders who are addicted to drugs receive the support they need from mental health care professionals, social services and law enforcement communities who work together toward long-term sobriety. Additionally, as a society, there are both moral and financial incentives to rehabilitate drug-related offenders instead of placing them in penitentiaries.
At the summit, Van Jones announced that President Trump had expressed his intention to support The First Step Act, a bipartisan bill the Aleph Institute and many other organizations have been working on for over eight years. It will help reduce prison time for nonviolent offenders over the age of 60 who have served two-thirds of their sentences, and also save millions of taxpayer dollars. So, for Zack, a 62-year-old man who was sentenced to 20 years, this bill would mean that he’d be eligible for release 6 years earlier, instead of staying in prison until he is 68 years old. This bill will also prevent pregnant women from being shackled during childbirth and will ensure that prisoners be incarcerated within 500 driving miles of their families. Non-violent offenders will be eligible for early release by participating in prison programming and phone time will increase from 300 to 500 minutes a month, a massive deal to those separated from loved ones.
During the keynote address, Van Jones asked Kim Kardashian, if her political views aligned with the man sitting in the White House, and whether that has given her pause while working alongside the Trump Administration to push for meaningful reform. She responded by asking if he thought politics is a good enough reason for a person to spend another 4-8 years in a prison cell. “After meeting all the people I have met behind bars,” she continued. “I guarantee you, they don’t care who signs that clemency paper.”
In Grade 6, my teacher Mrs. Wolf handed out a bookmark as a farewell gift to my class at the end of the school year. It had an acrostic printed on it, with the first letter of each line spelling out TEAM, to comprise the sentence “Together Everyone Achieves More.” It was invigorating and inspiring to spend a day with representatives from various groups involved with Criminal Justice Reform such as the Coalition for Public Safety, the Justice Action Network, and the Anti Recidivism Coalition, to name a few. In the words of Daniel Loeb, hedge fund manager, philanthropist, and co-host of the summit, “Networks are so much more powerful than hierarchies.” As I looked around the room and saw people of different races, religions, and backgrounds joining together, I was reminded of my trusty bookmark and what it represents. Petty politics aside, change will only occur when people unite for the sake of something greater than themselves.
To find out more about the Aleph Institute’s National Justice Initiatives, click here.