How our current tax laws prohibit the nation’s best leaders from fully confronting mass incarceration
You have no idea how hard it was to publish what I’m about to tell you. Nobody would touch it. I’m the Writer-In-Residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, but our attorneys said I couldn’t write this there. They are right. They could get in real trouble. Ultimately I had publish it on my own. Let me explain.
Last week I announced that I was becoming a Co-Founder and lead organizer of a political action committee (PAC) focused on changing the justice system from the inside out.
Less than I want to talk about what we’ll be doing or who we’ll be endorsing, I want to explain a broader concept of why I think we need exponentially more PACs focusing on criminal justice reform.
The organization we formed, Real Justice, is one of the only national political organizations in the entire country focused on how we can change the criminal justice system from the inside out. We are particularly going to focus on making sure that your city has a district attorney that not only looks like you, because right now, out of the 2,400 DA’s in America, they are 95% white, and 81% male, just 1% women of color, and overwhelmingly conservative, we are going to make sure that we elect District Attorneys who see their primary goal as ending mass incarceration. Simply put, that’s just not what we have right now.
District Attorneys are the gatekeepers of America’s justice system and they are overwhelming focused on locking up as many people they can for as long as they can. I’m not sure anyone is more complicit in the scandal that is mass incarceration than the nation’s DA’s (read my full piece breaking this down). They are simultaneously enforcers and architects. They have broad power over the design and function and force of the justice system in every city and county in America.
Toward that end, their work, and the criminal justice system in general, is local. And to change the criminal justice system, we can fight for national policies, but these local gatekeepers have more juice than anybody else in the system — period.
But here’s what’s weird — and ultimately has protected a very bad system in spite of a lot of good intentions. The people, organizations, and platforms that honestly need to be instructing citizens on exactly who to vote for in these races simply aren’t allowed to do that.
If you don’t mind, I have to get a little nerdy for a minute.
I hope I can do justice to what I am about to attempt to explain.
America’s tax laws are putting up a thick barrier, a force field if you will, that is effectively preventing the most capable advocates for criminal justice reform from telling the full truth about the problems of the system, and who can solve those problems.
Over the past three months, as I’ve prepared to announce that I was going to be joining Real Justice, I’ve come face to face with what I am about to explain dozens of times.
I literally just got off the phone with my colleagues at the Fair Punishment Project. We tried over and over again to publish this piece there, but we couldn’t. The good attorneys who help make sure In Justice Today and the Fair Punishment Project are in compliance told me no multiple times -even when I offered to make a hard edit — publishing this could cause us major trouble. The leading media platform on criminal justice reform is simply not allowed to go there — because of tax law — so I ultimately had to write this on my own in order for you to read it.
But let me make it even more personal for the world I operate in. At last count, we have over 70,000 black churches in America. It is the most consistent and influential institution in black communities from coast to coast, but the leaders of those churches, because of various tax laws, are not allowed to use their buildings or pulpits for explicit political endorsements. They can’t email it to you either. They can’t do it anywhere on church property or with church equipment. Even though those churches and those communities are ravaged by mass incarceration, they aren’t allowed to really get into the fight to inform people of what to do and who to vote for that will change the system. So, what we end up having are 2,400 District Attorneys in power, often fighting against the health and well-being of black communities, with 70,000+ pastors who cannot freely campaign for alternatives. I’m not even saying we should remove this prohibition — I just need you to know it’s there — and for black communities — this is problem is heightened — because the primary leaders in the community can’t get very specific about criminal justice reform.
It goes much deeper than that.
Because of tax laws governing charities, including almost every single civil rights organization you’ve ever heard of, including the NAACP, the Urban League, the ACLU, and others, those organizations are not allowed to endorse political candidates or use their resources in political campaigns of any kind. They can skirt around the issue. They can host forums with every candidate. And that stuff helps, but not enough. They can’t tell you which sheriff and jailer and DA is corrupt or violent or horrible. They can’t tell you who needs to be replaced and who you should replace them with.
The same is true for most fraternities and sororities — who have deep influence around the country. It even includes hardcore justice organizations that do amazing work — organizations that I love and respect — but would lose their non-profit status if they actually endorsed a political candidate. They are allowed to tell you what policies they hate, but they can’t tell you who to put in place to change things. This is true for almost every justice based organization in America — large or small — I know, I checked.
This same struggle includes pretty every elementary, middle, high school, college, and university as well. They can’t say anything.
Think for a moment about the traditional seats of black power and influence in America. Our teachers, preachers, pastors, non-profit and civic leaders basically have their hands tied.
So guess what they say when it comes time to vote?
That’s about it. If they say much more than that, it could truly jam them up legally. So all they can tell people, is “go vote.” That’s it.
Can I be frank?
“Go vote” is not enough. And the proof is the very system itself.
If “go vote” was enough, our 2,400 prosecutors would look and feel and act very differently.
If “go vote” was enough, Republicans would not control the House, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures right now.
“Go vote” is a not a political strategy. It’s hardly a slogan. Hell, it’s not even a good tweet. It lacks the specificity and nuance that people to know who to vote for and against. It lacks the detail needed to actually change the system.
So what happens is people go vote, normally down a single party line, often voting for complete strangers, often choosing random names from among Democrats, hoping they are great. Often, they aren’t. Some of the worst DA’s and judges in America are Democrats. Good people run against them, but the leaders people know and trust can’t tell you that. I can tell you 20 cities off the top of my head where this is the case right now.
What I am about to say pains me. I am not pointing at you. I am owning it.
We got where we are right now because we’ve been out-organized.
People who mean us great harm are in power right now because they have out-organized us.
Yes, they’ve often gerrymandered their way into success, but even that was them out-organizing us.
Yes, they’ve often enacted laws and policies on who can and cannot vote, but that is simply another expression of them out-organizing us.
When the primary people who have influence and power in our communities are not even really allowed to educate you on who to vote for and against, we’re in trouble.
This is the root of why I have decided to shift all of my organizing energy and efforts into launching the Real Justice PAC and getting involved in cities all across America to change the justice system in those cities from the inside out.
We are completely and totally unrestricted. 99% of the other groups and organizations, because of those of their tax status, either cannot get involved at all in the work we are about to do, or have great restrictions on just how much they can say or do.
And we chose the City of Dallas as the first place we are going to get to work. Since Donald Trump was elected you’ve probably heard about how we have to get ready for the mid-term elections. Well guess what, in Dallas, the primaries for those elections are in just 1 week, and early voting has already started there.
Does all of this make sense? What I want you to leave here knowing is that a good 95% of our leaders and heroes are simply not allowed to say what needs to be said about exactly how we reform the criminal justice system. It’s not that they don’t care (of course not), but that tax law prohibits them being very specific. And these restrictions keep horrible people in power and revolutionary people on the sidelines.