On Monday, major players in politics, law, academia, government, journalism, and the prison reform movement gathered at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City for the inaugural American Justice Summit, hosted by Tina Brown Live Media. The program examined problems within our criminal justice system, featuring various voices such as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton; Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison; and former inmates leading the fight for reform. While they all had different perspectives, several themes recurred throughout the day. Here are our top takeaways:
- The number of people in prison has exploded in recent decades.
We now have 2.3 million Americans in prison, a 700 percent increase since 1970 and the highest rate in the world. It would be one thing if the system were working and prison was a successful tool in turning lives around, but unfortunately, the opposite is often true. As Glenn E. Martin, Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, noted, two-thirds of those behind bars will return to prison within three years of their release. He then asked, “What other business would operate on that failure rate?”
- We need to address the root causes of incarceration.
We must look at the underlying factors that lead people to commit crimes. Addressing only incarceration, Mr. Martin said, is to keep giving Tylenol to someone with an infection: “If we’re talking about corrections reform, we need to look at community reform and disadvantaged communities.” Speaking about women specifically, Piper Kerman noted common reasons women end up in prison: substance abuse, mental illness, and physical or sexual abuse. As she put it, “We must address things that drive crime to get different results.”
- We should invest more in treatment.
There are more than one million people with mental illness behind bars, and 65 percent of the current prison population meets criteria for substance abuse. Americans struggling with mental illness and drug addiction are being warehoused in our prisons instead of receiving the treatment they need. Our own founder Mitchell S. Rosenthal, M.D., explained that in many states, a person with mental illness must be considered a danger in order to be committed to treatment. This is tantamount to waiting for people with mental illness to commit a crime instead of preventing the crime in the first place.
Dr. Rosenthal noted some positive trends, like drug courts and a national movement to get nonviolent offenders into community treatment instead of jail. This is not only the right thing to do, but also the most cost-effective: Studies show that every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment delivers a return of $7 or more in reduced incarceration costs. Still, he said, “We’re not investing enough in long-term treatment.”
- Giving youth a positive direction can prevent a life of crime—or stop the revolving door back to prison.
Since being incarcerated as a child is the biggest predictor of adult incarceration, we must work harder to keep kids from going to jail in the first place. Sally B. Hazelgrove, Founder and Executive Director of Restoring the Path/Crushers Club, spoke about her work in the Englewood section of Chicago. Her boxing club offers kids a positive way to gain the respect, unconditional love, and sense of purpose that can make gang life alluring. John Jay College Professor David Kennedy, whose groundbreaking work helped reduce crime in New Orleans and other cities, also discussed the importance of identifying youth engaged in dangerous behavior and intervening early to reduce gun violence.
Other panelists spoke about what we can do to keep kids already in the criminal justice system from returning. The consensus: The system must give young people more opportunities to advance their education. Currently, these opportunities are few and far between.
- Restoration of rights can help with reentry.
As Ann Jacobs, Director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College, put it, “Every conviction is a life sentence.” That’s because too often, people leave prison without the basics—like a birth certificate, a safe place to live, or familiarity with today’s technology—and are thrust into a world that’s changed beyond their comprehension. They also face what Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, labeled discrimination: the fact that a felony conviction can bar people from jobs, housing, education, and the right to vote. Access to employment and critical benefits would go a long way toward helping former prisoners become self-sufficient, productive citizens rather than repeat offenders.
- Racism plays a role.
The statistics are startling: A third of black men are likely to be imprisoned. A young African American male who drops out of school has a 70 percent chance of getting locked up. Johnny Perez—an advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project who served 15 years for armed robbery—noted that when he was growing up, “the question wasn’t, ‘karate or band camp?’ but ‘How am I going to duck the police tomorrow?’” Glenn E. Martin put it this way: “The United States has the longest and most successful diversion program of anywhere in the world—it’s called white skin.” Panelists agreed that we need to address racial injustice by investing in minority communities; ensuring that people of color get equal treatment under the law; and making educational and other opportunities available to minorities in prison.
- Incarceration affects families.
Children, in particular, suffer the consequences when a parent is behind bars. In one heartbreaking video, a 14-year-old boy who hadn’t seen his incarcerated father since he was six visited his dad in prison for the first time. And Dorsey Nunn said that being separated from his kids was the hardest part about prison. He also spoke about his work to bring parenting workshops to inmates, which helps them strengthen their relationships with their children during incarceration so they can be better parents when they get out.
- This is a consensus issue.
Sure, there were moments of disagreement—like when Norman Seabrook, President of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, made the odd contention that people in prison commit suicide because they’re bored. But everyone agreed on the basics: there is something wrong with a system that imprisons so many, and jails people with addiction and mental illness instead of treating them. The moral and cost-effective thing to do is invest in alternatives. “People come to the table for different reasons,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, “but we can work together.”
Renée Riebling and Kate Schmier
Blog Editors, Phoenix House