As described in yesterday’s discussion with innocence advocate Robyn Trent Jefferson, the ratification of the 13th Amendment made enslaving someone for the punishment of a crime legal, paving the way for the mass incarceration we see today. Below are three steps towards decarceration and remediating the New Jim Crow:
Arrest fewer people.
In America, someone is arrested every three seconds, resulting in nearly 10 million arrests every year. Notably, less than 5 percent of arrests are for violent crimes. Black people are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and harshly sentenced than White people; in 2016, Black people accounted for 27% of all arrests, which is more than double the Black population in America. These statistics demonstrate that arresting and incarcerating people in jails is not always done in the name of public safety. Further, we can see that Black people disproportionately experience the burden of over-policing and over-criminalization.
Some cities have made efforts to decrease police interactions and arrests by having non-police respondents for traffic law violations and 911 calls relating to mental health, poverty, homelessness, and substance use. Denver, Colorado, launched their Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program in June 2020, which sends trained healthcare workers to non-violent 911 requests. In its first 11 months, STAR successfully responded to 1,323 calls with no injuries and no requests for police backup.
Action step: Learn more about evidence-based alternatives to policing.
Abolish the cash bail system.
More than 70% of the United State’s jail population are people who have not been convicted of a crime yet; they are sitting in jail because they cannot afford their bail. This makes sense when you consider how expensive bail is: the national average for felony crimes is around $10,000. Even relatively low bail amounts can have disastrous results. Over a five year period in Monroe County, New York, over 1,900 people spent at least one week in jail on bail amounts of $250 or less.
We also know that the cash bail system racially discriminates: Black men receive 35% higher bail amounts than White men. This phenomenon perpetuates a two-tiered justice system ripe for reform.
Action step: Go to the Color of Change’s “How can you help?” tab to see a list of existing campaigns to support and resources for organizing your own campaign to end cash bail.
Free the wrongfully convicted.
According to the Innocence Project’s 2021 report titled “How Racial Bias Contributes to Wrongful Conviction,” two-thirds of the Innocence Project’s exonerees are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) with 58% being Black. The same report states Black people account for nearly 50% of all exonerees in the country. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, over 185 people have been exonerated from death row—100 of them are Black. At the Montana Innocence Project, Black people make up 4% of applicants for legal services but only 0.6% of Montana’s population. We see these disturbing statistics because racism is baked into every stage of a criminal conviction from suspect development to post-conviction relief. Incarcerating innocent people is a tool for perpetuating mass incarceration, and freeing the innocent and preventing wrongful conviction is a necessary step towards decarceration.
Action step: Follow, and assist when you can, the efforts of organizations in the innocence movement. The Montana Innocence Project works to free the wrongfully and unjustly incarcerated in Montana, and there are 68 other innocence projects around the world doing similar work. Find a list of innocence organizations here.