President’s Candid Talk about Criminal Justice System Reform

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Last week the United States criminal justice system became the subject of national discourse, framed by President Obama’s week-long conversation on race and mass incarceration, his visit to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, and the one-year anniversary of the murder of Eric Garner. 

Following the abusive policing practices that alienated black communities in Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York City and the virulent race hatred expressed in Charleston, the President turned this discussion to the destructive effects of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.  It was an unprecedented pivot, much like the emerging bipartisan collaboration to end mass incarceration that has drawn supporters from both sides of the political spectrum. 

The President made it clear that reform is not just about reducing the cost of a prison system that is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.  He highlighted the personal, family and community impact of the extraordinary number of black and brown men behind bars, noting that reform of the criminal justice system might be a way to deliver on the nation’s promise of treating its citizens equally, without regard to race or ethnicity.

Here in New York City, the past week also brought new ideas.  Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson called upon Mayor de Blasio and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to adopt his Begin Again program, where individuals with outstanding summons warrants meet with judges, prosecutors, legal aid attorneys, and the NYPD to pay their fines and clear warrants.  

A few days earlier, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito committed $17.8 million to implement a “supervised release” initiative as an alternative to bail that permits judges to release an estimated 3,400 defendants arrested for low level offenses, enabling them to remain at home while waiting for trial. 

Negative Effects of Incarceration

These initiatives are very, very encouraging.  But they bring to mind bigger, harder questions:

What about the thousands upon thousands of people who do go to jail or prison?  How do we ensure that what they face when they get there is not simply punishment (and there has been a lot in the news about excessive punishment – including calls to shut down Rikers Island entirely)?  How do we ensure that we do not do them irreparable harm in the name of public safety?

The toll from incarceration runs deep, ranging from personal experiences of trauma and stigma to the resulting barriers to family formation, housing, employment, political participation and health. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our communities of color which are already suffering with high rates of poverty, low-quality schools and limited employment opportunities. And while programs like Begin Again and supervised release will ensure that fewer people experience these effects, we need to look at ways to reduce or eliminate them for the people who do, in fact, go to prison or jail.

Apprenticeships and Job-Training

There are several outstanding models here in the United States that promote the positive development of incarcerated individuals and deliver real benefits to their communities.  Two such programs operate within the California Department of Corrections (CALDOCCS): The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) Career Technical Education (CTE) program, and The Last Mile, a non-profit program implemented in partnership with CALDOCCS.   Both train incarcerated persons for skilled, living-wage work while providing direct apprenticeship opportunities or links to employment in the community.

CALPIA’s CTE, piloted in 2006, partners with trade unions to offer incarcerated individuals pre-apprenticeship training in labor, carpentry or welding with an opportunity to directly enter the union.  CTE graduates are released from prison with the tools of their trade, paid union dues for one year, and typically move directly into union apprenticeship and work.  CTE recidivism rates have ranged from 7 to 12 percent versus nearly 60 percent for non-CTE participants. 

The Last Mile trains a small cohort of long-term prisoners in computer literacy and coding over a six-month period, providing them skills that can – when they are released – create a pathway to employment in an industry that pays an average starting salary of $100,000.  Participants who complete training are linked with tech industry internships that may lead to job opportunities. 

Both of these California programs create the real potential to catapult the theory and practice of in-prison training to a point well beyond the dead-end, exploitive work and training generally offered to persons doubly marginalized by race and a criminal conviction history.  

New York is at a decision point:  Do our elected leaders have the intestinal fortitude to repurpose the savings we will realize by incarcerating fewer people to instead create meaningful educational and training opportunities, mental health treatment, and other programs that promote successful reintegration?    

Or do we simply plow them back into sustaining business as usual?

Let’s use the President’s message at the El Reno Prison as a framework for real change, both here in New York and across the nation.

Issues Covered

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