An Outcomes-Based Criminal Justice Reform Agenda

A Reproduction Of My 7-Minute Speech from the Friends of Restorative Justice Event in Ann Arbor on 9/20/2018

I guess I am the dummy Representative LaGrand was referring to, I am the one who is here talking publicly about being formerly incarcerated.

Restorative Justice is important. Today our criminal justice system is largely punitive and also largely ineffective.

We need a system that delivers accountability, healing, and good outcomes but instead the most comprehensive meta-analysis ever done found that, even accounting for incapacitation, our jails and prisons make us less safe.

So, what do we need to do?

First, and I said this during my very first podcast episode, you would have to be willfully ignorant to walk into a jail or prison in the United States and not immediately witness the racial disparity.

We cannot claim to have just or civilized system as long as it is a system which discriminates based on race and if enforcement and prosecution are not colorblind, colorblind legislation cannot solve this problem. In other words, unless our reform legislation directly addresses the racism at the heart of our system directly, we cannot fix it.

Second, justice should not be about the amount of money you have in your pocket either. There is no evidence that the amount of money you have has any relationship to your level of dangerousness. So, in order to create a fair system, we need to end cash bail.

We need to end long sentences. We know people age out of crime, that violence is contextual, that long sentences do not deter. and that mandatory minimums are counterproductive. Certainty of punishment deters while lengthy sentences deliver poor results.

I agree with the other panelists who suggested we need more diversion for mental health and for addiction but diversion alone is not enough. Too often we forget that our prisons and jails are the nations largest mental health and addiction treatment facilities. Diversion is great, but if we want better outcomes, we need to make sure the people left behind get good treatment and programming inside our correctional facilities too.

I agree with my friend Zvi, who is here tonight, who once told me that prison administrators should act like hospital administrators, and start planning for the successful release of every prisoner from the moment they arrive in the facility. We need in-reach programs to train inmates for new career while they are incarcerated and which create off-ramps to employment when they leave prison. Unless incarcerated people have a vision of a something better, something to make them see a future that they believe is possible, they won’t invest in changing their lives.

In fact, I believe that Departments of Corrections, should never contract with companies unless they train inmates while incarcerated and unless they hire formerly incarcerated people upon release. It makes no sense to use public dollars to subsidize private companies unless that spending generates a meaningful return on the investment.

We also need to work on ending stigma and discrimination for formerly incarcerated people. We need to return to the days when we believed that people paid their debt to society when they serve their sentence. If a society won’t let returning citizens participate fully what incentive does it provide for returning citizens to invest fully in that society?

We need to pass Clean Slate legislation that automatically gets rid of the official record of someone’s crime after ten years offense free. Why? Because it is the right thing to do, research consistently shows that after ten years offense free a formerly incarcerated person’s risk is as low or lower than folks in the general population.

Finally, we need to end the regressive taxation of criminal justice debt. People go into prison broke and come out of prison broke, so what possible good can it do loading them up with debt? Increasing their desperation? Insecure and desperate people are much more likely to return to crime.

At the end of the day we need to be smarter, we have to stop investing in failed methods and a failed system. We need to start caring more about the outcomes the system generates than we do about being “tough enough” for the politics of security theater.

Josh is the co-host of the Decarceration Nation podcast and is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about criminal justice reform, television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and more.