Editor’s Note: CNN host Van Jones is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
“I just feel like some of the system could, you know, look at us as individuals. We do have lives, you know, just a mistake we made, and you know, not just do us as if we are animals.”
Those are the words of Rayshard Brooks during a heartbreaking interview filmed in February of this year – just a few months before he was tragically shot by police. Brooks talks about the agony of being trapped in a prison reentry and probation system that won’t let him get back on his feet.
His killing at the hands of Atlanta police certainly highlights the need for police reform. But it demonstrates something else that is equally urgent, though rarely discussed: America’s desperate need to overhaul our probation system.
There is a sad irony in America’s justice system: our police have too much power and too little oversight. And people returning home from prison have too little opportunity and too MUCH oversight. In that Wendy’s parking lot, those twin failures were on a collision course – and Brooks paid the ultimate price.
For a person on probation, as Brooks was, any contact with a police officer – for any reason – means an almost certain return to the horrors of a jail cell. It is safe to assume that Brooks did not want to go back to jail over sleeping in his car or failing a sobriety test, lose everything he had and be forced to start his life over again.
In other words, we do not know why the Atlanta police officer chose to shoot a man who was running away from him. But we can guess why that man chose to run, in the first place. Brooks didn’t want to lose his liberty. Instead, he wound up losing his life.
Rayshard Brooks: a voice from beyond the grave
In the heartbreaking interview filmed by tech startup Reconnect as part of a research project earlier this year, Brooks says:
“If you do something that’s wrong, you pay your debts to society, and that’s the bottom line.”
But he also wonders if there will be a time when he’ll be able to stop paying for them.
“That’s a hard feeling to stomach you know, with you going out and you’re trying and by you having this so-called record… it’s hindering us from going out in public to try and provide for ourselves… and getting ourselves back on track.”
Brooks lost his car and was under mounting pressure to find cash to pay for court fines and probation fees. He frustratedly noted that the process consumed the majority of his time, saying: “It takes you away from your family. You have to try and go out, make means, and yet, my kids. I want to spend some time with my kids, but I really don’t have the time. I have to try and go out, make money for this, make money for bills or trying to get myself back on track.”
“You go to fill out our application and you get to this question: have you ever been convicted of a crime, or have you ever been arrested? You know, you’re sitting there like ‘oh my God. I hope this doesn’t hinder me from getting this job.’ and then you finish up the application and you have some employers that come back to you: ‘Well, Mr. Brooks, unfortunately, we can’t hire you due to the fact that you’ve been incarcerated or you’ve been arrested for this and that and that… just breaks your heart.”
An invisible problem affecting millions
In this election season, we have talked a lot about police misconduct and overcrowded prisons. But the other racially unfair system that impacts even more people is this: mass supervision.
There are 4.5 million people on probation and parole, and their lives are a living hell. They’re caught in a spider’s web of catch-22s. They can be sent back to prison even if they don’t commit crimes.
The impact of this is deeply traumatizing – not only for the person on probation, but for their children and family members who are forced to endure a never-ending cycle of separation and loss.
As Brooks says in his heart-wrenching interview, “It’s hurting us, but it’s hurting our families the most. You know, so as we go through these trials and tribulations, it’s hurting our kids, and it’s taking away from our families, you know. The sole provider is a male or female figure, you know, speaking for both, and it’s taking away from us.”
As is clear in Brooks’ interview, people in his situation are made unnecessarily desperate. They are trapped in a system that makes no sense, and very few people can reasonably escape it.
If we want to prevent incidents like this, we must strengthen police training and discipline cops who violate policy. But we also need to dramatically transform the probation and parole system in America so fewer people are made desperate by impossible circumstances created by misguided government policy.
The probation system can be transformed
I know a great deal about this subject, because I am the CEO of REFORM Alliance – an organization founded in 2019 by Meek Mill, Michael Rubin, Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter, Robert F. Smith, Clara Wu Tsai, Robert Kraft, Michael Novogratz, Dan Loeb and Laura Arnold.
We launched REFORM to build on the momentum of the #FreeMeek movement (the movement born in response to the unjust reincarceration of Meek Mill for probation violations, now an Amazon Prime documentary series). Our organization’s mission is to dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – with a hyper-focus on the probation and parole system.
As a result, I have come to believe in nine powerful solutions that could shrink and transform the system of mass supervision (which includes probation and parole).
We talk about people “being on probation.” We should talk about people “rejoining the community.”
1. Go from “supervision” to “support”: Words have power, and we desperately need new ones in the probation and parole system. Terms like “probation,” “parole,” and “supervision” should be replaced with “community support,” “coaching” and “mentorship.” Words have tremendous power, especially when you’re down and working hard to get back on your feet. By changing the language, we can transform the way people view themselves as part of the system.
2. Limit probation length: We know that long sentences lead to undesirable outcomes, making communities less safe and denying people the opportunity to one day succeed. Data shows that excessively long probation sentences are a major driver of re-incarceration. We need to limit the length of time people can be sentenced to one year for misdemeanors and two years for felonies.
The most effective probation and parole interventions occur within the first 10-18 months because data shows that new offenses occur during this period. Leaving people on probation or parole for longer periods of time leads to an increase in recidivism (where people end up back behind bars, even for trivial, non-criminal behaviors), a reduction in public safety, needless costs to taxpayers, and unmanageable caseloads for officers.
Limiting probation terms to one year for misdemeanors and two years for felonies saves money, increases the effectiveness of the intervention, and makes our communities safer. It also provides people with a light at the end of the tunnel and mitigates the otherwise hopeless and endless despair people can feel on lengthy probation sentences.
3. End jail for technical violations: Conduct that is not itself criminal, but that violates the conditions of supervision is responsible for hundreds of thousands of prison admissions across the nation. People have been violated and sent back to prison for: failing to notify their probation officer of an address change; going to work; not going to work; getting pregnant; crossing into a neighboring jurisdiction to pick up a child from school; visiting a sick parent at the same time another sibling also on probation is visiting; getting pregnant… and the list goes on and on.
These technical violations cost our country nearly $3 billion each year and fail to address public safety. Perhaps more importantly, the practice of re-incarcerating people for technical violations is a primary contributor to that feeling in Rayshard Brooks’ stomach: the understanding that you can be sent back to a cell indefinitely for any interaction with the police, no matter how minor, creates a constant fear and a persistent level of trauma.
4. Allow remote reporting: There is no reason to require in-person check-ins at a probation office. Covid-19 taught us that many things can be done using technology. In fact, it is both safer and more effective to allow for remote fulfillment of these conditions. Even people on probation with a need for high levels of supervision (for example, someone who also has a diagnosis of schizophrenia and is required to remain med-compliant) has a better chance of making it through probation successfully through the use of remote conditions.
Technology currently allows for a number of remote interventions (including, for example, watching someone take their medication – and even asking to see under their tongue and waiting a certain period of time after ingestion to lessen the chances of a person skipping their dosage – while on camera) and data shows that these remote interventions increase success while on probation. Remote fulfillment also eliminates the persistent problem of conflicting conditions and allows someone to maintain their employment, continue their education, or care for their family while also meeting the conditions of probation check-ins.
5. Decrease caseloads: One probation officer may be responsible for hundreds of people. This works for no one. It isn’t effective for the people on supervision, nor is it manageable for the probation officer. Reduced caseload sizes allow probation officers to focus their interventions on the people who really need the most support, and allow them to tailor the supervision plan to the dynamic needs of the people on their caseload. Lower caseloads are correlated with more positive outcomes.
6. Offer mentorship: Most successful rehabilitation and anti-recidivism programs recognize the need for leaders with lived experience. Probation, inexplicably does the opposite, going so far as to ban any contact between people on probation. Disrupting this counterproductive practice by creating a mentorship program led by people who have, themselves, been through the probation system would create the necessary supportive and effective interactions that characterize successful programming. Ensuring that the main point of contact for someone on probation is someone who knows what they’ve been through and can successfully help them navigate it is essential to the ultimate goal of them successfully completing their sentence.
7. Invest in re-entry: We can increase our success by using our savings to uplift and support programming that gets to the root of the problem, thereby having a significant and lasting effect on crime rates and incarceration. The savings resulting from limiting the length of probation sentences and eliminating technical violations can be reinvested into programming proven to reduce recidivism and increase public safety outcomes. These include, but are not limited to: skills and strengths tests and training to match people with jobs, education counselors, job placement counselors/ job fairs in the community, mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, realtors to assist with finding transitional and permanent housing, transportation assistance, parenting classes, financial literacy courses and trauma workshops .
8. Eliminate unnecessary restrictions: In addition to making probation more individualized and dynamic, there are a number of “standard” conditions that must be done away with entirely to avoid arbitrary enforcement and racial disparities. Eliminating standard conditions such as restricting travel for those who aren’t flight risks is one way to reduce the number of people in prison who aren’t a threat to public safety. As Columbia University Professor Vincent Schiraldi found, restricting individuals who are a low risk to re-offend “actually increases their likelihood of rearrest.” Instead of burdensome restrictions and aggressive monitoring, we can start rolling back over-incarceration and breaking down barriers to success for returning citizens.
9. Reward good behavior: Psychology has long held that positive incentives are more effective than reliance solely on negative consequences. And yet, when the stakes of successfully changing behavior are highest – crime prevention and rehabilitation – our system fails to use the most effective form of intervention. Incentives that encourage people to engage in anti-recidivism and rehabilitative programming provide an essential and fruitful alternative to outdated and ineffective punitive consequences. A system that holds people accountable while rewarding them for taking positive steps to change their lives is one that leads to increased freedom and self-sufficiency, lower crime rates, and greater success overall.
With these changes, America could be on the path to less unlawful police violence, fewer people behind bars, and millions of people freed from a probation system that makes things worse – not better.
We need to be in the homecoming business.
In his final interview, Brooks said: “We can’t get the time back… but we could make up for it. … A lot of things just caused me to be behind, but I’m trying. You know, I’m not the type of person to give up. And I will keep going until I make it to where I want to be.”
Who knows what Brooks could have become, with the right support and better systems? His death represents a double-tragedy that spotlights twin failures in our criminal justice system.
As our nation goes through a Great Awakening regarding racial justice, let us transform policing, prisons and probation – all at the same time.