There’s a group of people working for The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. A friend of mine is working with them. He’s a George Washington educated Attorney, but really he’s a social worker. Currently, he advocates for a population of Americans relegated to surely one of the lowest tiers in our society. I’m speaking of our inmates and former inmates of the U.S. Criminal Justice System.
This marginalized and often dismissed population is, upon entering the system, typically stripped of their own name to be replaced with a six digit number. The Sentencing Project is an organization that addresses, advocates and educates for justice reform in our U.S. Criminal Justice system. Few Americans are aware that America is currently the world’s leader in incarceration, retaining 2.2 million individuals; a greater population than the City of Houston, Texas. Of that 2.2 million, one in three young African-American men are mired in the criminal justice system.
Many issues surround reform in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. States have laws on the books that prohibit former felons from voting. Issues exist pertaining to smoothing the transition of inmates back into society after incarceration. These issues are referred to as felony disenfranchisement. Although some businesses support the employment of former felons, it is difficult to obtain employment with a record: felony disenfranchisement.
The “war on drugs” and sentencing policies that followed national awareness efforts resulted in growth in incarceration for drug offenses. At the Federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980. Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.
Advocacy groups like The Sentencing Project work actively to reform the federal mandatory penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. These reforms intend to make penalties more equitable and fair to the nature of the charge.
On Tuesday, February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. encouraged states to repeal any laws that prohibit former inmates from voting. Decisions like this would definitively restore the right to vote to millions of people. According to The Sentencing Project, African Americans make up more than one third of the estimated 5.8 million people who are currently not allowed to vote. However, this urging from General Holder is simply a cry for help. Mr. Holder really has no authority or power to create change by himself. This declaration brings attention to felony disenfranchisement from the Justice Department and, in essence, President Obama, to move forward to eliminate laws that he says disproportionately decline minorities from their polling place. Mr. Holder said “it is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values,” Mr. Holder said at a civil rights conference at Georgetown University. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”
There is an interesting conversation here about justice and restoration. When has justice been served? Is it when one completes their prison sentence? Do crimes exist so severe that rehabilitation is not possible and therefore one must lose all place, meaning and voice in our society? And what constitutes one to lose their place, meaning and voice in society? It seems our society has decided that a misdemeanor charge is not severe enough to cause one to lose their voice, but in some states a felony conviction is indeed.