I applaud the work done on a bipartisan basis to pass the First Step Act. But I recognize it is just that, a first step. And in the process of criminal justice reform, it is the last step. The first step being policing, arrests and incarceration. Acknowledging that warehousing people in jails with harsh sentences for minor infractions is detrimental to our society and not productive, is a good thing. Addressing the need for rehabilitation pre and post release is another. But most importantly, we must recognize the fact that prison and release accommodations are the end of what must be addressed before we can celebrate any social or political victory. The fact that the population in prisons is 38% African American, in a country where African Americans comprise only 12% of the total population. And the fact that there are 47,000 more Black prisoners than white, shows a bias towards and a history of, racial profiling. I know you’ve heard these statistics before, but the policies and practices which make these facts a reality is what is important. This inequity is about the perception of Black criminality. Let’s be honest and recognize that the First Step Act is not really that, it is really a last step. We would not need to rehabilitate, if we did not incarcerate to begin with.
But for systemic racism, would we criminalize being Black for everyday behavior? This is most importantly and certainly THE question. Economics has been at the root of our history with criminality. Economics ignores why there are so many Black people in jails and the resultant effects on African American communities and justifies it in the need for labor. And for this reason, we must take seriously and understand the basis from which our discussion of criminal justice emanates. I do not see the First Step Act as a triumph of this administration or any politician or celebrity, beyond acknowledging the decrease in the need for unskilled labor.
So why is our criminal justice system so full of Black people to begin with? Dealing with criminal justice reform is crucial in rectifying the unequal prospects for people’s lives, specifically recognizing the overwhelming impact on the lives of Black men and women. Historically we know that at emancipation, prisons and laws were created and implemented to control the newly freed slaves. In this way, slavery could continue “legally”, and free labor could continue. It has been a practice starting with reconstruction and Jim Crow, that for more than 100 years, police have been used to control African American communities.
Police who patrol and arrest are central to the supply chain of the criminal justice system structure. It shines a bright light on the practices which have allowed no police officers to be convicted for murder in Chicago in the fifty years before Jason Van Dyke. It highlights the reason for the last act of Jefferson Sessions, which was to tear apart any consent decrees to monitor police behavior, and yes it speaks to the righteous claims of Black Lives Matter. Policing practice is also critical to the economic model which supports large profit margins from cheap labor. How have the police and courts on the front end been used to arrest more, and sentence more harshly African Americans to maintain a stock of cheap labor before we even get to rehabilitation post incarceration?
When slavery was dismantled and “free labor” tagged as slavery was no longer legal, creating a free workforce through prisoners, and eventually undocumented labor, became essential to building a burgeoning economy. In order to justify this system, it has always been necessary to create a narrative around who these people are and why they are being arrested. This would explain why incarceration was warranted based on a demographic profile and proclivity towards violence, work habits and sexual aggression. This stereotyping, now blatant and normal, justified incarceration, it enhanced the safety of our communities to just “lock them up”. The business of incarceration became integral to the functioning of a society which excludes people who once incarcerated cannot get a job, a loan, or a home to live in with family. At one point this labor was free, then it was cheap, and then it became too expensive to maintain.
We cannot forget that the billionaire Koch brothers were one of the first participants in for profit, private prisons. And when it became unprofitable, they were one of the first conglomerates to determine that the business model was unworkable and that for-profit prisons should be closed. And now we’re all on board for the First Step Act which starts a new business based on the lives of formerly incarcerated people. Why else would Trump indicate that he thought that Black and Brown people should want the border closed more than anyone else? Is it because he thinks those low wage jobs that undocumented workers seek are suboptimal enough to only be filled by Black and Brown people? This mind set is just that, which has been used to justify prison as a way to secure under class citizenship. The business model is changing faster than our ability to react to the effects of centuries of racist policy and multiple decades of evolving manufactured inequity and exclusion. Underutilizing all of the assets and depending only on a part of our population has damaged, rather than enhanced, the capitalist model.
The fact is the economy has changed and we haven’t kept up. The supply has gotten too great for the level of demand for marginalized, low value labor that we have created. There is no coal industry of the future, farms don’t operate without technology and manufacturing is advanced. The rush to technology-based innovation has put an even more urgent face on the necessity for change. If we had educated everyone fairly, if we had allowed each American to compete on a level playing field, if we acknowledged the humanity and worth of each individual, we would not have to resort to or revert to barbarism to exclude some from livable wages and the promise of a great America. And when you start to see each person as an asset, a valuable input to a business model upon which a real return on investment is based you open a whole world of possibility.
And so, I say let’s take a real first step. The bottom line is that there is no way to police our way out of the effects of bad policy rooted in racism. The answers are not in post incarceration rehabilitation, but in police reform. If it takes press events for Kim Kardashian and Van Jones to bring attention to the failures of our system, that imprisons innocent people and makes good photo ops but does not make good policy, for it to never happen again, then so be it. We simply cannot continue to blame Black families and Black fathers for poor parenting to justify the practice that has created conditions that work against their success. We cannot continue to teach generations hate and othering that leads to this condition. Criminal justice reform is not just starting a new inequitable system of halfway houses and ankle monitors, it means taking real steps, up and down the chain, to rectify the current state of affairs. It means addressing education inequities and providing real access and opportunities. It means less reliance on police to control and diminish others. Most importantly it is clear that we must confront our issues with race and inequitable treatment of all people. It is about recognizing the value and humanity of each and every individual in our world.
It is not a short-term fix, and it is a complicated issue, and therefore it is urgent that we get started. Criminal justice reform means confronting our issues with systemic racism. Valuable time and lives are being wasted every day. And this is a conscious choice. This is a first step.