Excerpted From: Nicole D. Porter, Unfinished Project of Civil Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration and the Movement for Black Lives, 6 Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy 1 (February 2016) (213 Footnotes) (Full Document)
The American criminal justice system has been dominated by relentless growth for the last forty years. The culture of punishment, in part driven by political interests leveraging “tough on crime” policies and practices marketed as the solution to the “fear of crime,” has been implemented at every stage of the criminal justice process: arresting, charging, sentencing, imprisonment, releasing, and post-incarceration experiences in the era of mass incarceration.
While it may not excuse criminal offending, the destructive effects of mass incarceration and excessive punishment are visited disproportionately upon individuals and communities of color and reinforce that the project of the civil rights revolution remains unfinished. In recent years, there has been growing consensus across ideological lines to address mass incarceration. Yet, policy changes are incremental in approach and do not achieve the substantial reforms needed to significantly reduce the rate of incarceration and its collateral impacts. Incremental policy reforms include: reducing the quantity differential between crack and powder cocaine that results in racially disparate sentencing outcomes at the federal level and in certain states; reclassifying certain felony offenses to misdemeanors; expanding voting rights and access to public benefits for persons with felony convictions; and adopting fair chance hiring policies for persons with criminal records.
The Movement for Black Lives, or Black Lives Matter, offers a new public safety framework to finish the project of civil rights in the era of mass incarceration. This movement has a sophisticated analysis that seeks to address the underlying structural issues that result in poor policy outcomes for communities of color, including high rates of incarceration. The public safety framework does not excuse criminal offending, but offers a new approach of viewing justice-involved persons--a disproportionate number of whom are African American and Latino--as worthy recipients of public safety responses not dominated by arrests, admissions to prison, or collateral consequences.
Aligning a Black Lives Matter framework with public safety strategies expands policy responses beyond the criminal justice system to evidence-based interventions demonstrated to reduce criminal offending. Research shows that early childhood education, quality healthcare, and targeted employment programs can help reduce recidivism and prevent justice involvement. More importantly, the Black Lives Matter framework can help to shift norms away from the punitiveness that dominates U.S. criminal justice policy.
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To finish the project of the civil rights narrative, the BLM narrative offers an opportunity for a new approach to public safety. Addressing the collateral effects of mass incarceration and civil sanctions will require both state-specific strategies and federal reforms. The approach must be accountable to community concerns that prioritize direct engagement with justice-involved persons and their families. Those concerns should inform changes in policy and practice to eliminate African American disadvantage at all levels of the justice system, including post-incarceration experiences.
In order to achieve a broader approach to public safety, stakeholders must focus on substantial sentencing reforms, which recognize the full humanity of justice-involved persons, and target interventions that reduce contact with the criminal justice system.
First, reforms must be adopted to scale back lengthy prison terms, even for more serious crimes involving violence. The twenty-one-year-old former gang member convicted of homicide may be a very different person at age thirty-five--one who accepts responsibility for his crime and no longer poses a threat to public safety. Second, we must prioritize evidence-based social interventions that demonstrate reductions in criminal offending and law enforcement contact that include: early childhood education, community investment and informal community control, greening high incarceration communities, quality health care, and targeted employment initiatives. Finally, we must focus resources to strengthen effective remedies in high incarceration communities. Research shows that a community-level approach can be effective at reducing crime both by creating opportunity and by enhancing informal social control mechanisms.
Nicole D. Porter is the Director of Advocacy at the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.