The U.S. Senator led a forum on the wide-ranging impact of systematic imprisonment and criminal justice issues on communities nationwide.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 5, 2016
Tracing the broad impact of America’s prison culture along lines of race, economics, education, and family in under two hours is a tall order, but U.S. Senator Cory Booker gave a strong effort Thursday in a visit to Camden City.
Flanked by Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, and the Reverend William Heard, Booker led a panel discussion on criminal justice reform at the 160-year-old Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church.
It was moderated by CBS reporter Alexandria Hoff and attended by a crowd that would have rivaled a Sunday mass. Speaking from the dais, Booker was unafraid to reach for the scripture first, invoking the act of showing compassion to prisoners as a social duty.
“If you want to see the greatness of a society, go to the jails and see who they are incarcerating,” he said. “We over-incarcerate mentally ill people, addicted people, black and brown people.
“We know from data and evidence that what makes us safer is not necessarily the length of these terms but what we’re able to do for people when they’re in prison,” he said.
Prison reform is a bipartisan issue, Booker said, citing political opponents from Newt Gingrich to the Koch brothers’ legal team as sharing his perspective that America disproportionately incarcerates its citizens as compared with other nations, particularly for nonviolent drug crimes.
The United States accounts for five percent of the global population but fully a fifth of its prison population, Booker said. He argued that the resources diverted to support that approach don’t only undermine existing policing efforts and keep certain segments of the population in poverty, but keep functioning communities from investing in infrastructure.
“We as a society are investing money in these long sentences, which could be going to fund more police officers on our streets, which could be going to reducing our prison population in the first place,” Booker said. “We’ve blown away humanity in building out [prison] infrastructure. Billions of our dollars have not been invested in things that produce economic return. That draining of our public treasury has had an impact that most of our public is not aware of.”
Families with incarcerated adults don’t only lose the earning potential of what might be a necessary breadwinner in the household, but suffer myriad consequences even after his or her release.
In many states, a conviction that leads to imprisonment can be sufficient to exclude someone from qualifying for a business license, bank or college loan, public housing, or even the right to vote, despite the fact that the odds of committing voter fraud are worse than those of being hit by lightning or of winning the lottery.
“There are 40,000 collateral consequences when you come out of prison,” Booker said. “Why are we telling people you can’t get food stamps, public housing; that we’re going to strip every way we have to make you successful?”
The impact of those after-effect penalties is also disproportionately felt among minorities, those with mental illness, and especially the poor, Booker said, noting that about 80 percent of inmates qualified for indigent defense.
Booker argued that the establishment of rehabilitative programs that provide community services to help inmates re-enter society upon their release can have a dramatic effect on recidivism rates, noting “the more education someone gets in prison, the less likely they are to recidivate when they come out.”
“You come back, you’ve got no job, no money, no skills, you’ve never had a job in your life; that picture in your head is not right, what are you tempted to do?” said Paul Fishman, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. “The only thing that’s a constant is the guys who got them in trouble in the first place are still there.”
Fishman supports ReNew Court, an intensive social re-entry program for inmates through his federal office in Newark. The program helps inmates find employment, housing, mental health services, and peer support. Since it started, ReNew has graduated 19 people, “most of whom” Fishman said are employed and living in stable housing. Moreover, even “hardened” career prosecutors in his office have found the relationship “unbelievably inspiring.
“What we can do at the federal level is show it is okay to do this work,” Fishman said. “If we can do this well, and with gusto, then I think we can make a difference.”
Houses of worship, which are often on the front lines of supporting former inmates after they are released, as well as the families they leave behind during their incarceration, face particular challenges in this area, said Reverend William Heard.
“Reform and liberation and justice: these ideas are all for us theological themes,” Heard said; “spiritual, sociological, sociocultural.
“Sometimes, before we can get our work done, the mammoth task is opening the eyes of parishioners to the ideas of today.”
Heard spoke to the challenge of changing a mindset among his parishioners against seeking counseling or therapy to recover mentally and emotionally from a prison term.
“Our challenge is to be open-minded and be strategic in what we do to help people get towards wellness,” he said. “We’ve seen the toll and the stigma that being incarcerated takes on the mind. In some cases, we’re still calling mental illness ‘the devil,’ and it’s more complicated than that.
“We’ve got to be wise enough, creative enough, ingenuitive enough, to reach for every avenue we can that leads to liberation. Without that kind of atmosphere in the church, we are doomed to repeat the issues of the past, and we will not go forward.
“Coming to the house of faith ought to be the place where anybody with any issue, with any past, ought to be able to find a sense of inclusion,” he said.
Wars on drugs, mental health
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson described “the failed policy of the war on drugs” as having grown a hundredfold the U.S. prison population from some 300,000 people in 1974 to almost 3 million today, “the overwhelming majority” of whom “are not folks that law enforcement would label as violent.”
In New Jersey, possession of a single joint can be punishable by a $1,000 fine and six-month minimum jail term. Booker said the state must reform its marijuana laws, even as the federal approach to its “over-criminalization…has to stop,” citing “the hypocrisy in Congress” in “upholding [federal] law” on the drug.
“We’ve wasted too much money as a country chasing after marijuana,” he said. “We now know there is no difference among blacks and whites and Latinos in the use of drugs, and, actually, in the dealing of drugs. [But] the chances of you getting a mandatory minimum are different when you control along racial lines. This is a reality that we have to do something about.”
Providing wraparound services for the most vulnerable populations in the community, such as those spearheaded by Dr. Jeffrey Brenner and the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers can not only cut back on public usage of everything from police to emergency-room services, but it’s also “the humane thing to do, the loving thing to do, [and] ultimately saves society money,” Booker noted.
The nationwide defunding of facilities that provided mental and behavioral care services has meant that people who suffer from such illnesses often are left to encounter police at a higher rate. In prison, their conditions worsen, and their recidivism rates “are often very dramatic,” Booker said.
“One of our silent sins is that we have taken populations of mentally ill Americans, stigmatized them very seriously, so people are afraid to talk about it, and then penalized these folks very dramatically by putting them in a prison system that often leaves them worse than when they went in,” he said. “If you are mentally ill, you are more likely to be the victim of crime than you are to be the victimizer.”
The problem extends to U.S. military veterans, the senator noted, many of whom return home with emotional trauma that can lead to behavioral illnesses, “and they too are ending up in our criminal justice systems,” he said.
“Please understand, this is another screaming injustice we have in our country,” Booker said.
“We come up with enough money to send folks off to war, but when they come home, we are doing a shameful job of churning them into the criminal justice system.”
That same absence of mental and behavioral health support affects police doubly—first, in the fact that law enforcement are tasked with addressing such encounters when they disrupt the peace, and second in that officers who don’t receive access to mental health services are often likely to commit violations in the execution of their duties.
“We can begin to use sophisticated means of predictive analytics to empower our police officers who are under extreme stress instead of condemning them when they make a mistake,” Booker said. “[Being] involved in that environment is often a great indicator for someone losing control of their emotions.”
“One of the greatest frustrations of police in this country has been the delegation of mental illness and addiction to police,” Thomson said. “The only tools we’re given is a service revolver and a pair of handcuffs. We’re a society where if we can’t medicate it, we incarcerate it.”
Thomson, who has led departmental trainings on how to handle encounters with people with autism, and for whom community relationships are a priority among his officer corps, said police need greater resources to which they often don’t have access.
“To properly address these issues with mental health may even lead to larger issues we’re seeing with the disfavorable, distasteful videos of officer-involved shootings and use of force,” he said. “It’s the unfortunate byproduct of taking very well-intentioned men and women and rushing them into situations.”
Community policing and juveniles
Thomson also complained that law enforcement as a profession also struggles with an absence of data.
“We’re working with the White House on a data initiative so we can have more open sources of information that people want and people need,” Thomson said. “What the public is concerned with is instances in question of use of force. We have our frustrations with New Jersey, but when you start to go west and south, it’s like jumping in a time machine. You’re not too far removed from Jim Crow.”
Understaffed police departments further undermine the ability of police to do their jobs, and vice-versa. Fishman pointed out that the launching of the Camden County Police Department doubled the manpower available to a chief like Thomson, whereas in Newark, ranks have thinned.
“That makes it very hard to do the progressive, smart community policing that’s in the 21st century policing report that the president commissioned,” he said.
In the absence of such resources, Fishman said it falls to parents and guardians to form individual relationships with their neighborhood police—and for police to have those same relationships with their children—as overstressed departments are struggling to do more than merely react to crimes that have already happened.
“Make sure that if the police don’t have the bandwidth to do everything that the chief is trying to get them to do, that that kid is not a stranger to the police if they pick him up,” Fishman said. “Make sure you talk to the police in your town to make sure that your town can do better.”
Thomson said that police used to more liberally employ a policy of station house adjustment, which involves reprimanding a minor with the assistance and involvement of parents instead of the penal system. Whether tolerance for such discretion has lessened in a society that is lawsuit-happy, the chief connected “a lot of the unintended consequences that we see” to “the inability to allow police to do that on the front end.
“We also realize that we can actually be contributing to that cyclical deficit,” Thomson said. “Institutionalizing a juvenile is one of the most damaging things you can do.”
Investments in education pay dividends, too; Thomson noted that, after the third grade, the illiteracy rate among children are more than comparable to the illiteracy rates in the criminal justice system.
“Kids that end up so far gone at 16, 17, 18 are the results of things we’re not doing as a society,” Booker said, arguing in favor of juvenile record expungement and reductions in out-of-school suspensions, “which we know [are] an indicator for future criminality.”
“There’s so many commonsense things we should be doing as a society for our children that we’re not doing,” he said. “We end up paying so much more on the back end of the problem than by making investments on the front end.”
Booker argued that juvenile crime in general could be headed off by better up-front investment in policies like prenatal care, universal preschool—which he noted that “all our international economic competitors invest in”—and programs like the Nurse Family Partnership, which lowers the infant mortality rate, helps lessen rates of abuse and neglect, and improve children’s overall health.
“A large percentage of our food service workers serve food but, ironically, have to rely on food stamps,” Booker said. “[America must] make small contributions to the difficulties of raising a child [for the] working poor.
“Don’t just think about criminal justice reform with the police officers in your neighborhood,” he urged. “Think about how we as a nation treat working people who are trying to raise children under very difficult conditions.”
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