Amanpour Muhammad Small
'Police reform failed for hundreds of years'
17:22 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ashish Prashar is a justice reform campaigner, who is on the Board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Leap Confronting Conflict, and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national justice reform organization that seeks to cut the US correctional population in half. She served as a senior policy adviser at the Department of Justice and as the director of reentry for Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of County Commissioners. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Soon, hopefully, former Vice President Joe Biden may be able to atone for missteps made by him, as well as State and Local officials, in designing a criminal justice system that perpetually disenfranchises people of color and the poor. Earlier this year, when the former vice president spoke on justice issues, he recognized his shortcomings: “I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”

Ashish Prashar
DeAnna Hoskins

Clearly, “trying” by Biden and others hasn’t been enough. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a result of decades of bipartisan legislation – like the 1994 Crime Bill – that propped up institutional racism. About 2.3 million people are locked up in jails and prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 40% of those locked up are Black Americans, who in turn only make up 13% of the general population.

While elected officials have publicly recognized that the justice system needs to be overhauled, they have stopped short of acknowledging the justice system, at all levels, is stacked against communities of color. As scholars like Michelle Alexander have laid bare, The American justice system is designed to keep people of color oppressed It is not broken. Many have argued, it is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Policies that promise change but do not address the structural racism in our justice system are empty. In fact, Biden, who is leading in the polls, helped draft that 1994 crime bill, which led to increased federal financial support of local police departments and their militarization.

To be fair, Biden has evolved on this issue in the years before he became former President Barack Obama’s number two. He backed the Second Chance Act of 2007, which provides services to formerly incarcerated individuals and has gone a long way to lowering the recidivism rate. In his last few years in the Senate, Biden also supported the full elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. This drastically reduced the disproportionate arrest rate of people of color provoked by the racially motivated war on drugs, the effects of which are still widely felt today.

In his bid for president, Biden has called for a federal ban on police chokeholds, a federal police oversight commission, national standards on police use of force, more federal mandatory data collection from local law enforcement and more oversight power for the Department of Justice to investigate local police departments.

In addition, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force launched in May has made recommendations on a range of issues including pledging to reform an American justice system that has criminalized poverty and overpoliced and underserved Black and brown communities.

While President Donald Trump has been credited with the passage of the First Step Act in 2018, which won bipartisan support, the law has not led to decarceration and fails to address systemic inequalities in our justice system.

However, while the act has been hailed as groundbreaking, it is not without its faults. The Brennan Center has found that large parts of the law remain unenforced and underfunded. Moreover, much of the bill only reinstated existing rules, and yet another study found that it has proven ineffective at reducing the number of people in federal custody. This leaves the bill open to being panned as a PR move by the Trump administration to impress Black voters.

The Act also brought forward the use of risk assessments, which has only gone on to further exacerbate racial biases and that institutionalize structural racism that already exist by relying on data such as “zip code” and “age at first arrest” – products of over-policing of Black people and communities of color, rather than risk of actual behavior.

The US needs a bold agenda that goes further than small reforms or hollow PR moves reshaping the justice system as a whole. Biden, in taking on justice reform, must address the root causes of incarceration, restructure policing protocol and fund community health and wellness programs instead of more prisons.

This challenge is not insurmountable. It’s a question of simple economics. We need to eliminate the economic ecosystem that fuels this unjust system.

Supporting Society

Biden can make a strong first step and support the BREATHE Act, legislation which proposes eliminating the federal government’s ability to give multimillion-dollar grants that enable police force militarization and calls for a “time-bound plan” to close all federal prisons and immigration detention centers. The Federal Bureau of Prisons pandemic response has demonstrated what has been called a lack of regard for basic humanity creating deadly conditions for those incarcerated.

Next, Biden would need to undo the 1994 Crime Bill, which made incarceration financially attractive to state governments. Actions here would move federal funding for prisons to community-led programs that provide resources to address issues like addiction, weak educational services, homelessness and mental-health crises that frequently lead to incarceration. This is not extreme thinking. In Boston this summer, Mayor Marty Walsh redirected 20% of the police force’s overtime budget, or $12 million, to social programs, a cogent example of how this can be done at the local level.

Prison Reform and a Chance to Thrive

We need to take the “industrial” out of the prison industrial complex. More than 4,100 corporations use prison labor directly or through supply chains. Individuals working within the prison system should receive a living wage, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. To bring down this house of cards, the 180 publicly traded companies that directly profit through the prison system must be compelled to divest their operations in this sector.

However, this is not enough. We need to keep people from reincarceration. To break the cycle of recidivism, we must eliminate discriminatory practices that disproportionately affect those who have been incarcerated, and make formerly incarcerated people a protected class when it comes to employment, housing and health-care access.

According to a 50-state analysis from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, 40 states, including Pennsylvania and Alabama, bar certain segments of the incarcerated population from accessing continued education. And, while some states may argue there isn’t enough funding to provide incarcerated people with skills training and other educational paths, the report found that only three states use all federal funding streams available to them for this exact purpose. This is a travesty because people who take vocational courses in prison are 28% more likely to find a job in their community than those who don’t.

We must also guarantee the right to vote for incarcerated people. In only two states, Maine and Vermont do incarcerated or detained people have the right to vote. It’s important to note that the prison population in each is overwhelmingly white. But if we look to more racially diverse states, like Florida, we see a different story unfold.

For decades, if not centuries, incarcerated Floridians have experienced voting disenfranchisement, both while detained or incarcerated and after release. In 2018, Floridians voted by a two-thirds majority to restore the right to vote to the formerly incarcerated. However in 2019, the legislature and governor effectively passed a poll tax, keeping many from exercising the right to vote, not to mention, thwarting the will of the people of Florida, a law that was upheld by the Federal Court of Appeals. Of course, Florida is not the only state where incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are kept from voting, it is just another example of the intentional disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters.

If you truly want people to participate in society, you do not pass laws that keep them from doing so.

Change Now

The responsibility is with us to change this and treat each other with respect and love, including our neighbors who have experienced prison or detention, because solidarity is the only form of activism that holds hope for our collective liberation.

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    What side of history will the Democratic Party choose? Without fundamental changes, claims of solidarity with communities of color ring hollow. We have an opportunity right now to right the course of history and take the opportunity to lead our country into true and lasting justice.