Cabell Willis, Offender Aid and Restoration of Arlington Country, Inc.
This past summer, at Offender Aid and Restoration of Arlington County, Inc. (OAR), a community-based, non-profit organization that facilitates the re-entry of former offenders to society, I discovered a broken American criminal justice system. Working with mostly African Americans and minorities labeled as offenders—or criminals—was a culture shock, but one that I embraced. Developing relationships with them, I came to understand how the justice system left them disenfranchised and marginalized, unable to find work or participate fully in society.
Through my contact with the clients of OAR and the services I was able to provide them, I learned several important things about them and the “justice” system that has redefined their lives. First, and most importantly, I learned that for many of them, only one misstep had left them disenfranchised—and that many other Americans, including myself, differ from them little beyond this. Though we come from different socio-economic backgrounds, our basic goals and dreams are not that different. In theory, the blind scales of justice could just as easily deal us the same sentence as it has them for an error in judgment. I also realized, however, that the scales of justice are not blind—that often what distinguished them from me was not merely their choices, but also social—and criminal—stereotyping.
Those fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of an education take racism for granted as a phenomenon of the past, residing in a few pockets of resistance in our society. After all, the election of our first African American president, as Michelle Alexander observes, should demarcate the triumph of post-racial America. Yet as the justice system demonstrates, post-racial America is only a superficial realization at best.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has become a sort of Bible for legal workers on the ground, from public defenders to restorative justice organizations such as OAR. In it, she tackles the shocking facts about mass-incarceration in the United States: facts that the general public remains largely unaware of. Beginning with the so-called “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, incarceration rates in the United States have sky-rocketed—from 300,000 to over 2 million today—largely due to drug charges. Alexander observes “that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.” The statistics are staggering and extensive. Not only does America imprison a larger percentage of its population—at 750 per 100,000—than countries that Alexander dubs “oppressive regimes” such as Russia, China, and Iran, but we imprison “a larger percentage of our African American population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid”. Though statistics show that drug use is equal across ethnic and racial backgrounds, African Americans are 20 to 50 times more likely than whites to go to jail for drug-related offenses. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, America is home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Not only is the problem one of mass-incarceration and disenfranchisement, but it is also continually one of racial profiling. In a bold and seemingly outrageous thesis, Alexander suggests that the mass-incarceration of African Americans in the United States is a new system of racial segregation, continuing the legacy of Jim Crow and discrimination behind the legitimacy of the law.
I could go on quoting Alexander’s statistics and facts, but my summer internship experience was not about reading a book. I will leave Alexander to present the evidence and her argument in her book. My observations relate to the nature of the relationship between mass-incarceration on poverty. Prior to my work at OAR, I had heard of the problem of mass-incarceration in terms of the financial burden it places on society. Yet the social cost is much more than this.
The main functions of OAR include facilitating the successful completion of community service hours in lieu of incarceration, as well as facilitating the successful reentry of former offenders to active participation in their communities. My work was in the reentry Services department, providing employment advising, social mentoring and support, and helping with the Advocacy and Leadership Program—designed to inform former offenders about the issues surrounding mass-incarceration, and encourage them to push for political action towards reform.
I worked with a diverse group of clients—across a spectrum of race, gender, age, educational attainment, and experience. We were able to help many of them get the job they were looking for—writing résumés, searching and applying for positions, and practicing for interviews. For others, a helping hand to get home or to shelter was all they needed. Navigating the maze of available social services can be a nightmare, made even more difficult by a criminal background and the culture shock of emerging from prison.
Many, however, found employment a challenge—the result of the label “criminal,” which they could bear for the rest of their lives. The “box” on job applications, acquiring about criminal history, denies many former offenders the opportunity to get an interview, let alone explain their situation and demonstrate their desire to start a new life. Such a new life remains out of reach for many—a mark of disenfranchisement. Having to check that box leaves most former offenders subject to judgment before they can even make a case in their defense.
I think it is important to recognize that mass-incarceration is not so much a source as a perpetuation of poverty. Martha Nussbaum defines poverty in terms of capabilities essential to an acceptable quality of life. The World Bank defines poverty in terms of employment. The problem that sentencing or incarceration creates for offenders is that any sentence becomes a life sentence, an obstacle to employment. In our 21st century capitalist society, employment determines access to resources. Denying former offenders employment only continues the cycle of poverty, encouraging recidivism.
Reducing recidivism and enabling successful reintegration into society works, but these solutions only address the symptoms of poverty. Mass-incarceration, a failed war on drugs, and employment discrimination based on criminal background perpetuate this poverty. The injustice of our criminal justice system demands understanding and policy change. Public defenders are necessary to fight the battles of those individuals subjected to the injustice of the justice system. Organizations such as OAR are necessary to help offenders rebuild their lives and to fight recidivism. Non-profit work and grass roots movements are important to fueling change and fighting the trend of mass-incarceration, but policy makers must guide that change, must lead that fight.
The beginning of change comes with education and understanding. Viewing the world in terms of “we” rather than “us and them” requires an understanding of our common bonds as well as our differences.
The continuing problem of racism became especially clear to me in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict as I contrasted the perspectives of my friends with my colleagues and clients at work: there was little to reconcile. I hope one day, perhaps idealistically, but with conviction, that there will be.