Action Alert

America’s Criminal Justice System: Families and Communities Serving Time

America’s Criminal Justice System: Families and Communities Serving Time
Rally against private prisons held at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida.

“Prison has become the new poverty trap.”
– Dr. Bruce Western, sociologist at Harvard University

The United States of America is euphemistically referred to as “the land of the free, and the home of the brave,” courtesy of its national anthem. While the courageousness of the American people is rarely up for debate, it is the former part of the statement that many are now calling into question. With over 2.3 million of its citizens currently locked behind bars, can America truly call itself the “land of the free”? The prisoner population in the U.S. has grown exponentially over the last four decades. In fact it has quintupled since the late 1970’s; an increase of over 700 percent. The United States only makes up about 5 percent of the world’s total population, yet it harbors 25 percent of the globe’s prisoner population, thereby making it the largest jailer on the planet. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, if present trends continue, “the lifetime likelihood of going to prison for men born in 2001 will be triple the likelihood of those born in 1974 (11.3 versus 3.6 percent).”

So what has been fueling this explosion in the prison population in the United States over the last 40 years? Has there been a widespread rise in lawlessness amongst American citizens, where they are committing more crimes than in previous decades? The simple answer is no. Americans are not committing more crimes than before, rather the penalties associated with certain crimes have become increasingly harsh and punitive. During the Nixon and Reagan Administrations, “tough-on-crime” policies such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the so-called "Three Strikes, You're Out" jail sentencing guidelines, and the War On Drugs campaigns were enacted to specifically target illicit drug offenders. Under the new guidelines of these drug enforcement laws, mandatory minimum sentencing standards were set in place for drug related crimes such as possession or trafficking. Common sentencing for petty crimes like possession of small amounts of narcotics would now result in prison terms of mandatory 15 years minimum to life. The 100:1 disparity between possessions of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine in mandatory sentencing was a prime example of the harsh and disparate punishments doled out under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986). Only recently has substantive action been taken at the federal level to address this egregious bias in sentencing with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act (2013), which lowered the disparity to 18:1.

Escaping Poverty

Drug peddling and addiction are symptoms of a greater societal illness, which until recently has gone under the radar of most mass media outlets and political discussions. When you investigate a little bit deeper into the problem, it becomes apparent that most drug arrests come from predominantly poor neighborhoods and communities. Many of those arrested on drug charges admit to have been engaging in those activities as an attempt to escape a life of stifling poverty. The vast majority of academic and social research on the subject has indicated poverty as the overwhelming force that drives most individuals to engage in criminal activity. Low-income communities with little job prospects and poor school systems feed people into the prison system through what is commonly known as the “school to prison pipeline.” Studies show that in 2008 over 35 percent of black males who do not have a high school diploma are in prison or jail; compared to 1980 where the percentage was at 10. The prospects of ending up in jail are greater than finding a job for many black men between the ages of 20-30 who do not possess a high school education. Without any economic alternatives, many people in poor areas turn to the drug trade in order to survive. Such was the case for Carl Harris.

Harris was born and raised in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and got involved in the drug trade in the 1980’s when crack cocaine was flooding urban streets. He had dropped out of school and couldn’t find gainful employment so he began selling drugs. He was initially arrested in 1985 at the age of 24 on two counts of assault. Harris ended up being convicted on a harsher crime than assault since police and prosecutors couldn’t prove he was selling drugs, although they knew he was. Therefore, instead of the typical three-year sentence for assault he was given 15 to 45 years and charged with armed burglary, even though he hadn’t stolen anything during the altercation. Harris would go on to serve 20 years in prison, leaving his wife and children behind to fend for themselves. His wife was forced to live on the streets and with family several times throughout Harris’ imprisonment, stating that it was nearly impossible to keep a job and visit Harris in the multiple prisons he was moved to around the country while serving his time.

Carl Harris’ case is the all too familiar story of so many young, poor black and Latino men. The mass incarceration of men in low-income communities not only punishes the offender, but also has a deleterious and punitive affect upon families of that community. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western states that, “[Incarceration] has become a routine event for poor African American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.” There is a vicious cycle that poverty and prisons produce that damages entire communities, especially those most vulnerable. Sociologists have linked higher rates of child poverty and juvenile delinquency to the incarceration of parents, which places economic and emotional strains on families. One in four African-American children who grew up in the era of mass incarceration has a parent who was locked up at some point during their childhood. Christopher Wildeman, a Yale sociologist, has found that children are generally more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. Boys left fatherless become more physically aggressive, while spouses of prisoners become more prone to depression and other mental and physical problems.

Contemporary research conducted by criminologists has also shown that much of the growing inequality that is showing up in modern society is linked to the practice of mass incarceration. One such study concluded, “that once a person has been incarcerated, the experience limits their earning power and their ability to climb out of poverty even decades after their release.” This disadvantaged status is summarily passed on to the children of the formerly incarcerated, who now become more likely to end up behind bars and repeat the cycle of destruction. Even though Carl Harris was able to gain his freedom, he is still chained to poverty and now struggles to make ends meet as a laundry attendant where he makes less than half the typical wage of a man his age. Nonetheless, he is happy that he was even able to secure employment, despite work being something he has had his fair share of while imprisoned. Mr. Harris made $1.15/hour for the work he did while in jail, which was not enough to pay his phone bills for calling home. In fact, after being put under pressure by prisoner advocacy groups, the FCC recently imposed limits on interstate calls, which until now typically charged prisoners $1 per minute, creating a huge financial burden on inmates simply wanting to connect with their loved ones. These calls are a vital lifeline for prisoners, especially when nearly 60 percent of mothers and fathers in jail don’t get visits from their children.

Prison Labor

Prison labor is a key function of the modern prison system. Many prisoners earn between 93 cents and $4 per day in the prison system and manufacture everything from women’s lingerie to household appliances. Major U.S. corporations such as General Electric, Victoria’s Secret, Motorola, Starbucks, McDonald’s, AT&T, Intel and Honeywell all profit from the cheap labor force of imprisoned persons, where they can pay minimal wages and not have to worry about things like supplying benefits to the incarcerated, safety regulations, or unionization. UNICOR (formerly Federal Prison Industries) is a company that contracts out prison labor and in doing so made over $900 million in revenue last year. UNICOR has prisoners working in apparel, clean energy, printing, document conversion and call centers. It seems the U.S. military is also taking advantage of this cheap labor pool. It is estimated that the prison labor industry produces nearly all of the military’s equipment and personnel gear including: military helmets, ID tags, bullet-proof vests, canteens, night-vision goggles, ammunition belts, tents, shirts, bags and pants. This practice not only undervalues and exploits the labor of incarcerated persons, but it also takes away economic opportunities and jobs from the general working public.

As poverty and mass incarceration play major roles in increasing income inequality, the modern prison structure is providing incentives to keep locking people up. Private prisons are for profit businesses and very lucrative enterprises on the stock exchange, raking in some $3 billion dollars annually. Companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group are some of the largest private prison corporations in the U.S. and house hundreds of thousands of inmates. Construction of new prisons (many of which are in rural areas) often come with the claim that they will bring much needed jobs to the community, however this is usually tied to a guarantee that the prison beds will be kept at 90 percent capacity. That means there must be a continuous supply of inmates to keep that prison profitable. Adding insult to injury, the CCA and GEO Group receive about 40 percent of their income from the federal government (your taxpayer dollars) and are exempt from paying federal taxes.

Right to Counsel

Not only does poverty steer so many into a lifestyle that lands them in prison, but also once arrested, a person's lack of resources is used as a mechanism to keep them locked up. David Carrol, of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), reports that it has become an all too common practice in many municipal courts throughout the nation to “pressure people charged with misdemeanors into waiving their right to counsel without adequately informing them of the consequences of doing so.” Some of those consequences can include deportation, ineligibility to receive student loans, loss of public housing, inability to serve in the armed forces, and significant financial penalties. Shockingly, many of the courts do not deny this practice, defending it by saying they are attempting to save the municipality money on paying public defenders and trying to expedite court proceedings. This is a direct violation of the detainee’s Sixth Amendment rights, guaranteed under the Constitution and reaffirmed in the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). In Broward County, Florida, the practice of denying Sixth Amendment rights to the poor has become so egregious that public defender Howard Finkelstein took it upon himself to write a letter to the Chief Circuit Court Judge expressing his disgust at the situation: “The judicial system is failing to provide counsel for indigent persons arrested for violating municipal ordinances . . . [E]ach municipality is responsible for the appointment of defense counsel to indigent defendants. The municipalities are systemically ignoring this obligation and the courts have failed to act. Both entities are responsible for the denial of due process and the prolonged incarceration of persons accused of municipal ordinance violations.”

This appaling practice not only deprives the poor of their basic Constitutional protections but also further victimizes an already vulnerable population in the name of saving a dollar. Cuts to legal aid disproportionately affect legal representation for the impoverished, and it is poor women and children that suffer to an even greater degree. This practice reaches beyond our borders. Legal aid services are slated to be reduced in Great Britain according to Stephen Cobb, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association. Cobb exclaims, “We are facing a disturbing new landscape in which 600,000 people will no longer receive legal aid, 68,000 children will be affected by the removal of legal aid in family cases and there will be 75% fewer private law cases in court." Women who cannot afford legal representation will bear the brunt of these budget cuts and will be put at an increased risk. “Denying victims of domestic violence legal support, or increasingly making victims endure cross-examination by their assailants, will remove the vital protection many vulnerable women depend upon," says Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.

Available Resources

Faced with so many obstacles, what are people to do when they finally manage to make it out of prison? Fortunately there are some resources available to returning citizens that help them transition back into society. Since many returning citizens face discrimination in the job market, initiatives like the Ban-the-Box campaign have been helpful in ensuring the formerly incarcerated have a fair shot at getting a job. Ban-the-Box was started by All of Us or None, a coalition of formerly incarcerated people and families that wanted to stop discrimination against returning citizens in the hiring process by prohibiting employers from eliminating applicants based upon their conviction history. The coalition has been successful in getting 45 cities and counties to remove the question regarding conviction history from their employment applications and more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey, implemented Ban-the-Box anti-discrimination measures to their housing market, ensuring returning citizens the right to obtain housing. Programs like the Reintegrating Alternatives Personal Program (RAPP) understand how poverty affects the lives of returning citizens by causing economic hardships for individuals and families. These challenges are evidenced in high rates of recidivism, more criminal activity among children of the incarcerated, greater familial dependency on receiving government social services, and increased levels of homelessness among the returning citizen population. Launched by the Faith Tabernacle of Prayer for All People, RAPP is a Washington, D.C. based program that specializes in assisting the returning citizen population of Wards 7 and 8 by providing comprehensive services such as job readiness and job placement assistance, mental health counseling, legal services, GED assistance, transportation services, and family counseling and reunification. These important services go a long way in keeping our returning citizens safe, employed and out of jail.

The Washington, D.C. Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (ORCA) also has a number of services available to the formerly incarcerated. Access to information such as record sealing and expunging can be found on their website along with other comprehensive service finders like the criminal justice coordinating council resource locator. Making sure the formerly incarcerated have a fair chance to get gainful employment and housing are essential steps in allowing them to be productive citizens once again. Our Take Action column on the right side of this page lists some ways you can help.

Posted or updated: 6/3/2015 11:00:00 PM
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Take Action:

  • Contact your Congressional representative (Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121) and urge them to support S. 502 – The Smarter Sentencing Act (2015), which would amend the federal criminal code to direct the court to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for specified controlled substances.
  • Watch the PBS Newshour segment “Broken Justice” to learn more about how bipartisan groups are working together to fix the nation’s criminal justice system.
  • Sign the petition letter sponsored by urging the leadership of corporations that support the private prison industry to divest their interests from the prison system.
  • Download the PDF: Portable Document File Courts and Indigent Defense Providers Resource Guide to access more information about opportunities and grants that can help reduce the financial burdens of legal representation on the poor.
  • Support initiatives like Ban-the-Box in your community to help ensure returning citizens’ right to fair housing and employment without having their conviction history used against them.
  • Read “Equal Justice,” #5031, pages 642 – 647: The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).