by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
How do you reform the “criminal justice system” without acknowledging systematic torture, endemic corruption, pervasive racial and class bias, the failure of the war on drugs, and the massive economic and social devastation it wreaks upon entire communities? The answer is you don't. You create a “Criminal Justice Reform Commission” of insiders and consultants, keep the public at bay, and focus on making the prison state cost less. For “reformers” like this, the only thing US prisons have done wrong is spend too much money.
More Fake Criminal Justice Reform in Georgia, And A Real Answer
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Reform the prison state? Sound like a good idea? In Georgia, reform is the official state policy, with its own commission, pricey consultants and slick PR effort.
But what kind of reform of the prison state ignores racial selectivity in policing, prosecuting and sentencing? What kind of prison, or to use the state's own term, what kind of “criminal justice reform” will do nothing to stop the incarceration of juveniles with adults, and does not address the lifelong discrimination against former prisoners in employment and housing?
What does “reform” of the prison state mean, when it doesn't require the state to provide adequate health care, or meaningful educational and self-improvement opportunities to prisoners? What kind of “criminal justice reform” would leave intact the failed forty year war on drugs? What kind of “reform” continues to allow the gouging of prisoners' families on phone calls and money-transfer fees?
What's left, if you leave out all those things, is the Georgia governor's Commission on Criminal Justice Reform. At their first public meeting in June, the thirteen member commission, guided by consultants from the Pew Charitable Trust and Applied Research Associates, a well-connected research firm, stated that in their view, prisons were just another government spending program, and government spending programs have to be cut. That's it and that's all.
In other words, the only thing Georgia's, and by extension the national prison state are doing wrong is spending too much money. Arbitrary and punitive beatings and torture, like the state's response to the Georgia prisoner strike last December are no problems. The stunted economic futures of families and whole communities due to employment discrimination against former prisoners are no problem. Abysmal medical care and the absence of educational programs behind the walls, cited by prisoners as causes of the strike, are also of no concern. Racist over-policing of black and brown communities is no problem and the profiling and rounding up of immigrants are, according to the commission, not a problem either. Racial and class disparities or the unavailability of funds to pay decent defense attorneys? Not even in the conversation.
Once in the front ranks of the nation's drive to lock up and throw away the keys for as many of its residents as possible, Georgia now intends to lead the nation in the race to de-carcerate many of this same population... albeit under conditions that do not affect their class, economic, family, literacy, health or social status in the least. Georgia already leads the nation not in the number or percentage of prisoners, but the percentage of all its residents under all kinds of lock, key, court, bail, parole or probationary supervision.
The governor's commission sees its job as crunching the voluminous data they have on every commitment to the state's system over the last two decades and coming up with formulaic ways to distinguish the supposedly violent and dangerous offenders from the non-violent and less dangerous ones. The commission will recommend cheaper, out of prison programs for these. The commission's consultants will get paid, the contractors who implement the “out-of-prison” programs will get paid, and maybe the whole thing will cost less. Maybe.
But there are no guarantees. As the consultants noted at the July 13 meeting, in 2001, Georgia privatized misdemeanor probations. At that time the state had 159,000 probationers, felonies and misdemeanors together. Today the state's network of private probation contractors manage more than 450,000 misdemeanor probation cases alone. Go figger.
The governor's commission on criminal justice reform does not intend to seek public input from anybody outside the parties it has already recognized as “stakeholders”.... associations of judges, prosecutors and sheriffs, with maybe a token defense attorney thrown in, Democratic and Republican legislators, and local chambers of commerce. If the current pattern holds, it will have monthly public meetings at which only commissioners and the consultants can speak, and only in the state capitol building in Atlanta.
Evidently, in the commission's view, if you're a member of an immigrant community at risk of arbitrary profiling and imprisonment, you're not a stakeholder. If you live in a community with a forty or fifty percent rate of black male unemployment, in part because formerly imprisoned can be legally discriminated against in jobs, housing and other areas, you are not a stakeholder. If you or a member of your family is a current or former prisoner, you're certainly nobody the commission wants to hear from. If you're a juvenile in an adult prison, or a prison-like facility, you are somebody the governor's commission on criminal justice reform intends to ignore.
That ain't right.
At a meeting in Marietta a few weeks ago, a number of local residents came up with thirteen points they'd like to see the governor's commission to address. Absent consideration of those points, they suggest, the governor's, and the commission's notion of reform are empty and deceitful rhetoric.
They're calling themselves ---- heck I'm it in, so I can use the first person ---- we're calling ourselves the Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. We are demanding, for a start, that the governor's commission on criminal justice reform hold hearings throughout the state to solicit public input into its reform proposals, including in at least one adult and one juvenile prison. Georgia has plenty of these, so finding one should be no challenge.
We've got a web site at endmassincarceration.org, and a petition, both online and downloadable. These are our thirteen points...
Restore voting rights to all convicted persons, including those currently confined in prisons and jails. The U.S. is alone among advanced industrial nations in depriving prisoners the right to vote.
End the lifelong discrimination against convicted persons in employment, housing, and civil and public benefits of all kinds by enacting simple and transparent expungement processes and by prohibiting employers and others from inquiring into the police and criminal records of applicants and job seekers.
Ban the imprisonment of juveniles with adults, and over the next three years phase out all youth prisons and prison-like facilities in favor of appropriate educational, therapeutic and family-building institutions. Imprisoning youth with adults is indefensible. The prison state has proven an utter failure at educating, protecting or healing troubled youth. The 2008-09 National Survey of Youth in Custody revealed that one in eight youth in custody nationwide reported one or more incident of sexual victimization in the past 12 months, with more than 90% of these committed by staff.
Institute meaningful education, self-improvement and skills programs for all those confined in prisons and jails. Thousands of Georgia prisoners are illiterate. Every year hundreds of thousands are released from the nation's prisons and jails into communities no better than when they left, with little affordable housing or health care, few jobs or educational opportunities.
Remove all financial incentives that police and sheriffs' departments currently receive for increasing the numbers of low-level drug arrests and ban the use of confiscated funds by law enforcement agencies. Paying police departments per volume of drug arrests, and allowing law enforcement agencies to seize funds for their own use are invitations to corruption and selective enforcement.
Acknowledge and abolish racial and class injustices inherent in the selective over-policing of poor communities of color, in the plea bargaining system, in unfettered prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimum sentences and a host of other law enforcement policies that differentially affect communities of color and the poor. Require statements of anticipated racial and ethnic impact for future sentencing legislation and other practices proven to have disparate racial impact, and sunset all two strikes and mandatory sentencing laws.
Ban price gouging on phone calls between prisoners and their families, institute transparency in accounting of inmate funds and make it easier for families of prisoners to visit their loved ones behind bars. Maintenance of family ties is crucial to any sane notions of rehabilitation. It's not the job of prisoners or their families to financially support the prison state or profiteering businesses.
Provide decent health care in the nation's prisons and jails. Health care is a human right, period.
Institute full transparency in the fines and punishments levied upon inmates and the grievances filed by inmates. Nobody outside prison administrators knows the number, character, or disposition of inmate filed grievances or sanctions applied to prisoners. To ensure these are being fairly handled this information must be available to some community entities outside the Department of Corrections.
Decriminalize drug use, homelessness and mental illness. The forty year drug war has failed, and even though jails and prisons are wildly unsuited to treat mental illness they are where most of the nation's mentally ill are currently housed.
Stop the racist profiling and roundups of immigrants and repeal legislation that encourages or requires it. Cease participation in the Secure Communities initiative, and repeal measures that promote and require profiling of suspected immigrants.
Tell the Truth! Challenge, rather than reinforce, common misconceptions about crime and base policy on empirical evidence, not political convenience. Initiate mature and balanced media discourse that serves to counter myths and misunderstandings. Criminal behavior is not born of hedonism or moral weakness. It is politically defined, arising out of economic inequality and marginalization. Nobody went to jail for the mortgage meltdown or the BP oil disaster or many similar crimes committed by people and corporations who are not poor or persons of color.
Georgia's Commission on Criminal Justice Reform must hold a series of public hearings around the state including at least one in an adult state prison and one in a juvenile facility soliciting public input into measures that produce true reform and begin to undo the direct and collateral damage the prison state has caused our families and communities.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Marietta GA where he is also a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. He can be contacted at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.