A quick glance at some heavy statistics is all you need to understand that the American criminal justice system is broken. Consider the fact that most individual U.S. states have higher incarceration rates than entire countries, coupled with the weight of approximately 2.2 million people currently being held in prisons and jails… which matches the entire population of Houston, the country’s fourth largest city. Recidivism rates have fallen over the years, but are still shockingly high and reflect the reality that the criminal justice system is not benefiting its prisoners or society-at-large.
Many Americans are victims of this broken system, but the black community, specifically, is disproportionately harmed by the prison system. According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, while 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, they make up over a third of the total prison population and are locked up at over five times the rate of whites. This racial disparity has narrowed over the years, but the numbers still reflect a deep-seated injustice. The harm that extends beyond the prison walls and into the communities of the imprisoned is not easily quantifiable, but ripple effect of harm is undeniable.
In honor of Black History Month, here are three criminal justice reform initiatives that are doing important work toward creating a more just American system:
REFORM Alliance has been described as the Avengers of criminal justice reform. Founded by high-profile figures Van Jones, Jay-Z, Meek Mill, and Robert Kraft, to name a few, REFORM Alliance hopes to throw their weight into reforming the current parole and probation system. “People talk about the revolving door of prisons; what they don’t understand is probation and parole are the hinge on that revolving door. It’s trapping people and tricking people back into the system as opposed to helping them get on their way,” explained REFORM CEO Van Jones in an Instagram post last week.
On Friday, REFORM Alliance debuted a collaboration with Puma: the Clyde Court #REFORM sneaker. This collab makes good on REFORM’s mission to “fight different” as it draws the conversation around prison reform into the pop culture narrative. All net proceeds from sneaker sales will go toward REFORM Alliance prison reform initiatives. “We had to be seen, because we couldn’t be heard,” reads the heel of the black and red shoe.
The Marshall Project
The Marshall Project is a nonprofit new organization that supports and produces journalism focusing on issues surrounding the criminal justice system, covering everything from policing to immigration to reform. Founding editor-in-chief Bill Keller, a veteran journalist who left the New York Times after a 30-year career, currently runs the organization. “We want to move the discussion of our institutions of justice — law enforcement, courts, prisons, probation — to a more central place in our national dialogue,” wrote Keller in a 2014 letter to The Marshall Project’s supporters. “We believe, as the great jurist Thurgood Marshall did, that protection under the law is the most fundamental civil right in a free society.”
— The Marshall Project (@MarshallProj) February 3, 2019
In 2017, the organization produced the original documentary project We Are Witnesses, releasing it through the New Yorker. The project was nominated last year for an Emmy. We Are Witnesses focused its narrative on stories surrounding the criminal justice system, with testimonials from former convicts, law enforcement officers, and family members who have been affected by the system, including Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner. “I was just yelling at the screen, like, ‘Get off of him! Stop it!’ ” she shares in her story, recounting the moment she saw footage of her father being taken down by officers. “My head was spinning. I was hot. Throwing up. That’s how we found out.”
Innocence Project is a non-profit organization that first and foremost works to exonerate prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes by expanding access to DNA testing. The organization also attempts to eradicate wrongful convictions through policy reform efforts that address issues like government misconduct, false confessions, and inadequate defense (the New York Times recently published “One Lawyer, One Day, 194 Felony Cases,” a piece that highlights the underfunding of public defenders). Beyond exoneration, the Innocence Project fights to ensure that victims of wrongful incarceration are compensated for their time in prison.
— Innocence Project (@innocence) February 12, 2019
On February first, the Innocence Project launched their hashtag campaign #BlackBehindBars to acknowledge how wrongful incarceration disproportionately affects the black community. The organization cited statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations on Instagram: “You are 7x more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder. You spent an average of 10.7 years behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit vs. 7.3 for whites.”