We Can’t Afford Not to Fix Our Justice System

It's not just fairness -- although more black men are in jail than were slaves in 1850. The cost is driving states to bankruptcy.

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The current system provides for little or no reintegration; it functions as a revolving door, through which those who have served time in jail or prison all too often quickly find themselves back in, unable to overcome the many obstacles they face when attempting to re-enter their communities.

It is time to recognize that our scorched-earth approach to public safety has sent us down the wrong path. We need to be smart about our policies and resources while keeping our communities safe. Here are three steps we recommend to ensure that public safety is a true civil and human right for all of us:

Build Broad-Based Coalitions

It is no longer enough for criminal-justice reform to be an issue of concern only to criminal-justice reformists. We need to bring to the table business leaders and advocates for civil rights, education equality, women’s rights and families. We also need to work with people we have traditionally considered to be unlikely allies in this fight, such as law enforcement and business.

More and more, leaders in law enforcement are calling for new ways to keep our communities safe, and California’s new attorney general, Kamala Harris, is among those leading the charge. We also need more grant makers to recognize the connection between criminal justice and other social problems they are aiming to alleviate, and invest resources for maximum impact.

Eliminate Barriers to Employment

There is perhaps no more effective tool for successful re-entry into society than employment. Formerly incarcerated people who are able to secure employment are one-third less likely than their counterparts to end up back in prison or jail. That is why both the NAACP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area have launched new initiatives to meet this challenge.

In California, the NAACP worked to secure an administrative order from the governor’s office that removes questions about criminal history from employment applications for most state jobs. The Lawyers’ Committee has launched a new clinic to connect formerly incarcerated individuals with pro bono attorneys from top law firms to address legal barriers to re-entry and employment. We all win when we ensure that those who have paid their debt to society can have the tools they need to turn their lives around.

Reallocate Resources

In 2010 the NAACP commissioned new rolling advertisements in various California cities to draw attention to the disturbing trend of spending more on jails than on higher education. Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged this when he aptly noted, “Spending 45 percent more on prisons than on universities is no way to proceed into the future … What does it say about any state that [it] focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?”

As states across the country continue to struggle with budget crises, we need to collectively call for shifting our funding priorities from incarceration toward programs and initiatives that will revitalize our communities.

It is our belief that criminal-justice reform is one of the leading issues in the fight to ensure equal opportunity for communities in need. We cannot afford to wait another generation to turn around decades of failed policies that have caused our nation to hemorrhage money and human potential. The exigency for policies that are smart on crime — not just “tough on crime” — is now. It is the only way we can achieve something we all want: safe and healthy communities.

The NAACP has released a report titled Misplaced Priorities that details the challenges faced by the states because of spending on incarceration over education. You can get a full copy of the report here.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP. Lateefah Simon is executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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