Lifting Every Voice

Monday, February 16, 2015

 

Ronald

I sat in the audience recently at the Johnson Center in Harlem listening to NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito lay out a progressive agenda for NYC. The Speaker’s address was fittingly entitled “Lifting Every Voice.” As a representative of The Fortune Society, I was there principally to hear about the Speaker’s priorities for criminal-justice reform.

At a time when our prison system is bursting at the seams, it is heartening to hear a refreshing voice, one that cries out like so many in the community for fairness and justice. Much of the criminal-justice system is in dire need of overhaul, and Speaker Mark-Viverito is certainly on the right track.

The Speaker referenced some imprudent policies that have done considerable harm, particularly to young black and Latino men. “For instance,” she said, “if you are accused of jumping a turnstile or committing other minor offenses in New York City you may be locked up.” She went on: “And if you can’t afford bail, you will spend on average 15 days in jail. The results are predictable — people lose their jobs or their housing, and cannot take care of their children while they are in custody.” These results have always been predictable, but that has only slightly tempered the influx of blacks and Latinos from specific communities into our jails.

Over the past decades, the issue of fairness and equity has fallen on deaf ears of many elected officials. What has come to resonate with politicians on both sides of the political spectrum is economic feasibility. The Speaker highlighted the “$100,000 a year it costs to house someone on Rikers” as nonsensical. She stated passionately that “we cannot continue to lock up those accused of low-level, non-violent offenses without recognizing the dire, long-term consequences to them and to our city.” In a truly inclusive vein, the Speaker affirmed that “these are the voices we must uplift as well.”

In order to fix aspects of the broken system, the Speaker proposes to increase the use of summonses for minor charges, impose more civil penalties over criminal ones, and create a citywide bail fund to liberate the individuals who remain in jail because they are poverty-stricken and cannot afford seemingly meager bails (e.g. $250). Fortune’s David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) applauds the Speaker for taking these and other courageous steps to reduce reliance on incarceration, and for doing so by looking primarily at the costs to human lives and communities rather than financial costs.

This reform is crucial for our criminal-justice system and it cannot come at a more opportune time. As Timothy Williams pointed out in his recent New York Times article, our jails have basically become warehouses for the poor and addicted. (His story quotes a new report by the Vera Institute entitled The Misuse of Jails in America.) And we cannot point to high crime rates as an explanation for this enigma since we hear consistently from the Mayor and Police Commissioner that crime is at an all-time low.

Indeed, just this past week, there was a streak of 12 straight days in NYC without a single homicide. Despite the fear of violent crime, our jails are not filled with people who have been charged with murder or other serious offenses. To the contrary, the majority of individuals languishing in jails are there for relatively minor offenses, many of whom are unemployed and suffer with substance use or mental health issues. According to the New York Times article, “The number of people housed in jails on any given day in the country has increased from 224,000 in 1983 to 731,000 in 2013 – nearly equal to the population of Charlotte, N.C. — even as violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50% and property crime has dropped by more than 40% from its peak.”

The way to shift this reality is to shift public policy, since policy decisions have gotten us into this predicament in the first place. Policy decisions have been the result of priorities that have sought expediency over dignity, efficiency over fairness, punishment over treatment, and jails over people. Lifting Every Voice has to be more than a hashtag; it has to be a movement towards fairer criminal-justice policy and away from the emphasis on incarceration. People cannot be viewed as disposable; all lives matter; all voices need to be uplifted.

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