Twelve mind-blowing facts about the criminal justice system — and the best ways to fix it

Problems remain well-known and abundant in the justice system, but activists are describing new research and new approaches at day two of the American Workforce and Justice Summit, Josh Marcus writes

Monday 16 May 2022 04:00 BST
<p>In this March 16, 2011 file photo, a corrections official watches inmates file out of a prison bakery after working the morning shift at the Rikers Island jail in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)</p>

In this March 16, 2011 file photo, a corrections official watches inmates file out of a prison bakery after working the morning shift at the Rikers Island jail in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

There is only so much a statistic can show about the criminal justice system, and how to change it for the better. Many are well aware, and have been for years, of its racial biases, of its great financial costs to the government, of its deep reach into the lives of a huge proportion of Americans and their families.

We know what these systems are doing, Kendrick Davis of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center told the audience on day two of the American Workforce and Justice Summit (AWJS) in Atlanta, and we know the roots of those systems in some of America’s ugliest biases. Now it’s about building the coalitions to change them.

“Does there exist the collective political will to get it done?” he said.

There was no lack of will inside the AWJS hall on Thursday, and there was plenty of novel research and analysis to help build that momentum in the wider culture. It’s not the endpoint of the discussion, but a starting point to the work of movement building, the activists, advocates, and business leaders at the event argued.

Here are 12 of the most surprising facts and figures about the sprawling mass incarceration system in the US revealed at the conference, and the ways innovative activists are creating something better.

An 800 per cent increase in women incarcerated since the War on Drugs

Women are the fastest growing part of the prison population. 80 per cent of them are moms, and over 90 per cent are victims of sexual, domestic, or child abuse, according to Topeka Sam, of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, a New York-based nonprofit which provides housing and advocates for policies that support formerly incarcerated women.

Every 5 minutes, another person back in custody

Once people are released from prison, that’s often only the beginning of the punishment that lies ahead of them.

One such challenge is the parole and criminal supervision system, which impacts an estimated 4.5 million in the US, according to Louis Reed of the Reform Alliance.

Even minor infractions like running out late to pick up groceries can land people back in prison, and every five minutes, another person returns to custody, Mr Reed said on a panel hosted by The Independent.

$16 trillion lost to racism

That’s the price of GDP lost over the last 20 years because of racism, Mr Davis of USC said, “because we didn’t close gaps between Black and white individuals in wage earning, in access to capital for entrepreneurship and other ventures and all things we know from the economic undergirding our our individual lives and communities.”

97 per cent facing conviction without full trial

That, on the other hand, is the percentage of federal convictions that result from plea deals hashed out before a full trial determining true guilt or innocence can take place, according to Maha Jweied, of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. In states, where the public defence crisis is more acute, 94 per cent of convictions come from pleas.

“If you don’t have a lawyer advising you, you’re really at the point of being able to lose your rights, whether or not you’re guilty,” she said.

10 times more likely to be homeless, and earning just 10 grand a year

People with prior contact with the justice system are 10 times more likely to be unhoused than the general public, and have a median wage of just above $10,000 in their first year after prison, added Terrica Ganzy of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Thousands of official and unofficial policies around the country bar formerly incarcerated people from housing, employment, and professional licensing.

Combined, these barriers make “living feel like a trap” for people once they leave the prison gates, Ms Ganzy told the audience.

Over 800 children, locked up for life

An estimated 804 minors around the US are serving life sentences without parole, said Undrea Jones of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, who served 21 years in prison starting at age 16.

It’s a system, she said, that convinces people, and rests on the principle, that some children are worthless.

“A child believes everything an adult tells them,” she said. And for children in the justice system, the government “became our parent.”

“We believe the criminal justice mockery system when they convicted us to die in prison but we continued to live,” she continued.

36 million records clear

One of the key policies backed by many at AWJS is “clean slate,” using government power to automatically clear old arrests and convictions from people’s records and giving them a better shot at reintegration.

Pennsylvania, one of the first states to pass clean slate, has gone on to wipe 36 millions records since.

“Government can push a button and people that are eligible will automatically have their records cleared,” Sheena Meade of the Clean Slate initiative said on the AWJS stage.

“There is somebody around you who is impacted,” she continued, noting the estimated 1 in 3 Americans with some kind of criminal record. “You just may not know it yet.”

Almost half of staff, formerly incarcerated

Dave’s Killer Bread, a bakery founded by the formerly incarcerated Dave Dahl, has become one of the top brands in the US, and it’s managed to do so while focusing on second-chance hiring, according to Genevieve Martin of the company’s DKB Foundation.

Now, its staff is regularly made up of between 30 and 40 per cent justice-impacted people.

“We’re the leading company because we hire the best people for the job,” she said.

4,300 new hires

Dave’s Killer Bread isn’t the only one. Perhaps the complete opposite business from the organic bread baker is financial giant JP Morgan Chase, which has committed to similar second-chance efforts.

Roughly ten per cent of its new hires in the US, about 4,300 people, have prior contact with the system, said Nan Gibson, executive director of the company’s policy center. The company achieved that through “banning the box” asking about criminal records on its job applications, as well as supporting local groups that offered job training and legal assistance to prospective hires from justice-impacted backgrounds.

$30m raised

When the pandemic struck, returning citizens were hit hard by job losses. That’s why the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) helped raised $30m to distribute cash grants to formerly incarcerated people of up to $2,700 dollars.

“What we were seeing were big job losses since 2020, but so many people weren’t eligible for that,” said CEO’s Christopher Watler.

$5,000 down payments on employee home purchases

As numerous panelists at AWJS attested, housing remains one of the biggest barriers to formerly incarcerated people.

Cincinatti’s Nehemiah Manufacturing owns its own housing complex that it rents at low rates to employees, and supports team members with up to $5,000 in matching funds to put a down payment on a house.

A 30-year policy revised

When Keilon Ratliff of staffing firm Kelly Services began working with Toyota factory to hire formerly incarcerated people, they ran into HR policies that were 30 years old barring such practices.

“We were talking to executives. No one could tell you the genesis of the policy,” he said. “They started asking each other around the room, do you care about this?”

Fast-forward to a pilot project at a Kentucky plant, and suddenly the automaker was seeing increased retention, diversity, and hiring options. Now, the policy changes implemented in Kentucky are companywide.

The American Workforce and Justice Summit 2022 is a two-day gathering of more than 150 business leaders, policy experts and campaign organizations focused on how corporations can meaningfully engage in justice issues and create change in the workplace and beyond. AWJ 2022, a project of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, is taking place in Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 and 5 May. The Independent will be reporting from AWJ 2022 as media partner.

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