States and Local Advocates Lead the Way for Criminal Justice Reform

Stealing From The Mouth of Public Education to Feed the Prison Industrial Complex

It can be easy to overlook the role of our deeply broken criminal justice system in perpetuating the cycle of poverty and rising inequality.

While Congress stalls on any semblance of progress on criminal justice reform, a number of states are taking matters into their own hands.  Kimberly Hart, a life-long New Haven, Connecticut resident is using her own personal story to bring about change in her home state.

Hart is a community advocate and mother of a 15-year-old son. She was convicted of a felony 30 years ago, but the sentence has carried on long after she exited prison. She knows first hand the economic disadvantages placed on the formerly incarcerated and has dedicated her life to helping others like her navigate in an economy tilted against them.

The United States has the largest criminal justice system in the world spending over $ 80 billion annually. The Sentencing Project found that U.S. incarceration rates have increased by more than 500 percent in the last 4 decades, despite a decrease in crime rates across the country. The incarcerated population today is 2.2 million people.

According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, 600,000 individuals are released from prison every year, with very few access to programs that could ensure a smooth transition back into society, leading them to face barriers in getting a job, securing stable housing and much more. They are often shut out of government provided opportunities that would lead to stability such as employment, housing, and education.

“Because my felonies are all larcenies, I can’t get a living wage job. I can’t get a job at a retail store.” Hart goes on to explain how she can’t even get trained to become a Certified Nursing Assistant because potential employers are too afraid to let her into clients’ homes. “I told myself, I don’t do those things anymore. Why am I still being held accountable for it? I’ve already paid my dues, why do I have to pay for the rest of my life?”

Shutting out formerly incarcerated people from these essential programs creates massive economic problems not limited to this population but for the nation as a whole. The Center for Economic Policy Research estimated that excluding people with criminal records out of the job market results in “a loss of as many as 1.9 million workers and costs the U.S. economy up to a whopping $ 87 billion each year in lost gross domestic product.” With people of color occupying 60 percent of the current prison and jail population, they face the brunt of these economic burdens.

Having been exposed to advocacy at a young age thanks to her parents, Hart became involved with the organization Mothers For Justice, a grassroots women’s advocacy group that focuses on welfare reform, prison re-entry, and affordable housing. “In order to affect change, you have to affect policy. I join advocacy groups that address the problems that I’m going through because I know that I’m a part of the solution. That’s when I learned that legislators work for me and I have the power to hire and fire,” Hart says.

In 2016, she worked with Mothers For Justice to push the Connecticut state legislature to pass the “ban-the-box” law that prohibits employers from requesting past criminal history on initial employment applications. While this law is a step in the right direction, it chips a small piece away at the large wall that stands between those with felony records and financial security.

For the past few years, Hart’s best chance at employment has been with a telemarketing company that doesn’t do background checks, where she has to deal with the harsh reality of receiving no benefits, no paid holidays, or paid sick time. “I get paid off of commission and I have to work hard because if I don’t make a sale, my fifteen-year-old son and I can’t eat.” Because of this, Hart still has to rely on government safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Hart is concerned over the future of SNAP as the program faces funding cuts under the Trump Administration’s proposed 2018 budget. She explains how food is a basic necessity that people need to build better lives for themselves. “If you cut SNAP that means my child will go hungry. When you’re hungry you can’t sleep or learn. In order for my child to become self-sufficient and not have to rely on social services, he’s going have to get a decent education, go to college, and land a decent job so he can be a productive member of society. You can’t do any of that hungry.”

Kimberly Hart now works with the organization Witnesses to Hunger where she sits on the New Haven Food Policy Council working to eradicate hunger in New Haven. Among other issues related to poverty, Hart ensures that her voice remains one that represents people like her who are victims of the criminal justice system.

“If the state of CT looked at me as Kimberly Hart who happens to have a 30-year-old felony conviction instead of looking at me as a convicted felon whose name is Kimberly Hart then they could be more humane about this,” Hart said. “All we want is a second chance, life happens but it definitely doesn’t define who I am today.”


How the U.S. criminal justice system operates as a debt-based system of racial control

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

Green Cottenham was loitering at a train station in Columbiana, Alabama. Along with several other young men, he was arrested and convicted of vagrancy in less than 24 hours. Cottenham was sentenced to three months of hard labor. To add insult to injury, he was charged a $ 38 fine. Unable to satisfy the fine, he was sentenced to an additional three months of hard labor.

Alana Cain was charged with theft, accused of stealing from the New Orleans, Louisiana law firm where she worked. After pleading guilty, Cain was ordered to pay $ 1,800 in restitution and additional fines and fees that amounted to about $ 950. Late installment payments and an encounter with law enforcement due to a broken taillight culminated in her arrest.

Cottenham was arrested in 1908, a time characterized by pervasive racial segregation, terrorism from white supremacists in white sheets, and rampant political oppression.

Cain, similarly young, African American, and convicted of a petty crime, was arrested in 2015.

White elites sought to more firmly reinforce their control over African American life as Reconstruction waned in the 1870s. They relied on a series of legal measures that coalesced into what were colloquially known as the Black Codes. White-dominated state legislatures throughout the South established stringent, criminal consequences for previously petty offenses in order to neutralize the political gains made by African Americans through the Reconstruction Amendments. Laws against vagrancy and contract severance especially entrapped African Americans within the criminal justice system, capitalizing on the persistent poverty of the African American community. Even the theft of a pig, worth mere dollars, to feed a starving family could result in five years of imprisonment.

In 1901, John Davis was travelling through the Alabama countryside to meet his ailing wife at her parents’ home. Along the way, he was stopped by Robert Franklin, the local constable, who wrongfully claimed that Davis owed him money and demanded his payment. Davis asserted that he did not owe Franklin any money, but was powerless to stop his arrest. He was quickly convicted. After his sentence to ten months of hard labor, Davis was hit with a barrage of fines and court fees that he could not pay. His labor was sold by the court to Robert Franklin in order to satisfy his debts.

Like so many others, Davis was trapped in this system of convict labor leasing until his debts were deemed paid. This debt-based collusion between the state and private entities proved to be quite profitable to both. For instance, Alabama garnered $ 164,000 in revenue from leasing convicts by 1890 (a $ 4.1 million value today). Private entities, companies and individuals alike, were finally able to solve the labor shortage and revenue crises left in the wake of Emancipation.

More than a century later, one in fifteen African Americans have fallen victim to the same debt-based system of racial control that terrorized Green Cottenham and John Davis at the dawn of the 20th century.

Where once white landowners fueled the indebtedness of African Americans, that task has since been assumed by the state. Beginning in the early 2000s, many states attached hefty fees and fines to the same petty offenses criminalized by the Black Codes like vagrancy and more recent ones like unpaid parking tickets. These amplified laws exploited the economic vulnerability of African Americans like the Black Codes before them.

In early 2013, Clifford Hayes was homeless in Georgia and in need of a place to rest. Instead, he was arrested for failing to pay the more than $ 2000 he owed to cover the fines and probation fees associated with an arrest in 2007. A judge ordered Hayes to either pay up or risk being sentenced to eight months in jail. Hayes lamented that neither the court nor the private probation company would take his dire financial situation into account. Hayes was forced to decide between using his limited income from disability benefits to pay his debt and going to jail.

No longer abusing the labor of African Americans like John Davis, the state and private entities have instead turned their attention to nickel and diming those like Clifford Hayes as a more direct means of profit accumulation. In the midst of declining revenue and funding, the state has levied the burden of maintaining the criminal justice system on African American defendants. For example, Ferguson, Missouri utilized a barrage of fees, fines, and court costs to supply 20 percent of its budget, playing on the poverty of its 70 percent African American population. More than 8,000 state agencies received some share of the $ 4.5 billion obtained from civil asset forfeitures by the Department of Justice, a practice that has been shown to disparately target and impact poor African Americans. Sentinel, the private probation company monitoring Clifford Hayes in Georgia, made at least 40 percent of its profits in 2012 from charging defendants, preying on the many African American defendants who were unable to pay.

W.E.B. Dubois once observed that “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” referring in the latter part to the state-sanctioned racial oppression (among other atrocities) forced upon African Americans like Green Cottenham and John Davis post-Reconstruction. As Alana Cain and Clifford Hayes demonstrate today, many African Americans remain enslaved, having been criminalized and controlled by the criminal justice system because of their poverty.



The post How the U.S. criminal justice system operates as a debt-based system of racial control appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Ebony Slaughter is an intern with the Criminalization of Poverty project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


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