On May 12th Attorney General Jeff Sessions released an eight-page memo ordering federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible charges against crime suspects including mandatory minimum sentences. This contradicts attempts taken in recent years by politicians and advocates across the political spectrum to reform the criminal justice system because they believe an overhaul is needed instead of doubling-down on existing approaches that have proven ineffective. These proponents of criminal justice reform include liberal organizations such as the ACLU and NAACP, but also the conservative Heritage Foundation and Freedom Partners funded by the Koch brothers. The Sentencing Project reports that the U.S. is the world’s leader in incarceration at 2.2 million people jailed, which is a 500% increase over the last 40 years and nearly double the incarceration rate of the 2nd highest country (Russia). In addition, some communities are affected more than others as evidenced by black men having a 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned, while white men have only a 1 in 17 chance. Email your Senators and Representatives and ask them to support the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would reduce correctional spending and give federal judges the flexibility to determine sentences on a case-by-case basis.
This week we donated to Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), an organization that interrupts the school-to-prison pipeline by intervening after crimes have been committed to repair harm and prevent re-offending. RJOY was founded by civil rights attorney and community activist Fania E. Davis, who was looking for a more effective approach than our current system, and modeled RJOY after remarkably successful programs in South Africa and New Zealand. The program began with a pilot project at West Oakland Middle School and achieved an 87% reduction in suspensions, preserving vital Title I attendance funding. Due to the success of the pilot, program training expanded to 20 schools, and RJOY has now served over 1,000 Oakland youth. In addition to the South Africa and New Zealand programs, U.S. restorative justice programs have also shown substantial improvement over the status quo, such as Barron County, WI’s program which reduced violent juvenile offenses by 49% and arrests by 45%.
It is a travesty that so many of our families and communities are being torn apart by the rampant incarceration rates in our nation, particularly for minor drug offenses. Prisons are profiting off the current system, and our citizens — especially people of color and low-income communities — are paying the price. We believe that rehabilitation and restorative justice programs, like RJOY, are not only more effective in solving these problems and helping people, but moreover are much fairer and more humane solutions.