Criminal Justice Reform Demands Political Leadership, Not Editorials

Across the nation, there has been a recent barrage of media reports, in progressive as well as conservative publications, advocating and applauding reforms in the criminal justice system. Academics, politicians, religious leaders and reformers have been joined by a handful of those on the right in this chorus of support.

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout, calling for the elimination of bail, accurately noting that is punishes the poor and people of color.

The New Yorker magazine posted a significant report on how one creative Milwaukee DA is addressing institutional racism.

Others have written about abuses in arrests, sentencing, prison conditions, parole, and re-entry hazards.

Publications as diverse as The Wall Street Journal and The Nation have agreed on the shortcomings of the criminal justice system.

Reading all the news, you could get the impression that dramatic changes were taking place. Yet, in spite of all the media and the politicians' and reformers' cries for accountability, the hundreds of thousands of men and women across the country in jails and prisons find their daily lives unchanged. The atmosphere is dismal, punitive and hopeless.

I know this, firsthand, from my continuing work at The Fortune Society. The examples abound.

On December 18, 2014, the day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Rikers Island in response to exposés of prisoner beatings, a man imprisoned there, with whom I have been in contact, had his foot broken by correction officers.

A 42-year-old man, incarcerated in the New York State prison system since he was 17, is repeatedly turned down by the parole board despite the fact that he has taken every program offered and has excelled. He has won the respect of staff and inmates and has assumed responsibility with great introspection of the crime which led to his incarceration. But he is denied by a parole board that has become another judge and jury. The man in question is prepared to be a taxpayer. Instead, he is a tax burden.

A New York parolee misses his report date. Years ago, this would have resulted in stricter street supervision. Instead, he is re-incarcerated on a parole violation, spends the next three months in a medium-security prison near the Canadian border, and loses his job as a result. He discovers that most of the men with him are parole violators. Not only is this expensive for the taxpayer, it also justifies maintaining an institution that might otherwise be closed because the crime rate has dropped so dramatically. Many parole violators come back to the streets having lost jobs and housing and are forced to live in the drug-filled shelter system. Their options are narrowed and alienation increased.

A 50-year-old black man sits on Rikers Island for nine months awaiting trial, accused of being with a man who robbed a laundromat of $40 and a cell phone. The assumed robber has not yet been caught. Bail is $25,000 for the apprehended friend because of a felony committed 25 years ago. The DA offers seven years and threatens if the man goes to trial he could get 20 years or more. Yet, the leader of the Republicans in the New York State Senate -- arrested for extortion, soliciting bribes and fraud and facing 30 years in prison -- is released without bail at his arraignment. The black man sits in jail -- the other sits where he wants. Equal justice for all?

In a scathing indictment of the U.S. penal system (Callous and Cruel, Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons), The Human Rights Watch reports that mentally ill inmates in prisons and jails across the U.S. are subjected to routine physical abuse by guards, including being doused with chemical sprays, shocked with electric stun guns, and strapped for hours to chairs or beds. Almost every jail and prison has men, women, and children in solitary confinement inducing madness and violence. Despite what we know about the mentally ill and the damage caused by solitary, these practices remain the status quo.

Police continue to fill quotas by disproportionately arresting people of color for minor offenses. DAs, judges and parole boards too often make decisions based on recent headlines. And our correctional system belies the meaning of that word, inflicting punishment and damage on the men, women and children in its control.

The criminal justice system is populated with people who have suffered abuse, drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, joblessness, mental illness, and illiteracy. At every juncture, the practitioners of the criminal justice system and policy makers ignore and resist the wisdom and insight of social scientists, psychiatrists, and religious leaders who warn us that punishment is not an appropriate solution to complex social issues.

The reality is, we are maintaining and supporting an archaic justice system because of the absence of a creative political strategy and the will to do what is right. All of the new reporting in the world cannot provide relief for those who languish in prison. Editorials without follow-up are useless.

Until we develop courageous political leadership in this country, this dangerous and damaging system will go on.