Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Life in the Shadows: The Need for Criminal Justice Reform

By Nolan Adams, NDG Special Contributor

We have a problem. Black men are disappearing at alarming rates — and so is their vote. They weren’t abducted. They haven’t gone missing in the woods. They have been sent away. The United States prison population is the largest in the world, at a staggering 2.3 million prisoners. That nearly doubles the population of Dallas. Our incarceration rates are well above those seen in the Gulags of communist Russia. The swell in the American prison population must be addressed. The signals of a failed penal system are numerous. Ex-offenders more likely to end up back in prison than staying free. Five-year recidivism rates sitting at around 76.6 percent. How many more will be caught in the revolving doors of the American penal system? More importantly, what are we doing wrong?

Looking for a solution, I asked Barrett Brown for input. Barrett is a wildly successful journalist, criminal justice reformer, and activist. He writes for The Intercept, D Magazine, and was mentioned in an episode of House of Cards. He believes the discriminations experienced during by ex-offenders during reintegration is just one of the many causes of our rising recidivism rates. Before I continue, I should also note that Barrett has personal experience with living life after prison. Not only is he a famous journalist, activist, and all-around good guy — he also happens to be an ex-felon.

Like most ex-offenders, Barrett had a few hurdles to jump in the months following his release. Freedom isn’t free for ex-offenders. Barrett’s felony record was preventing him from securing housing. Since he preferred to avoid homelessness, Barrett had to get creative. As a journalist, his first instinct was to reach for his pen. He wrote an article detailing exactly how his criminal record was preventing him access to housing.

“I was only able to secure housing because of my connections. I literally wrote an article in D Magazine saying, ‘Hey, someone rent me an apartment’ . . . obviously, that’s not something most ex-offenders can do.” Within a week of the article being published, Barrett had a roof over his head. “My situation is obviously vastly different from that of most inmates insomuch as that I’m generally respected for the things that I went to prison for and receive a great deal of support that’s not available to most.”

Securing housing tends to difficult for many ex-offenders. Housing status has a significant impact on ex-offender success. For example, if an ex-offender can find housing, secure employment, and maintain economic stability, he is significantly less likely to re-offend than an ex-offender who is homeless and unemployed. Barrett Brown understands exactly how difficult the search for housing can be for an ex-offender.

“There are several issues that make things difficult for ex-felons. One of which is the widespread prohibition apartment rentals”. This prohibition is wide enough to include Section 8 housing programs, which often turn away applicants with a felony record.

This is not to imply that we should throw caution to the wind and allow ex-offenders free reign. We should rely on common sense. Don’t allow a man convicted of child abuse to live next to a school. On the other hand, someone convicted of a non-violent property crime should be able to rent an apartment. Similarly, an HOA should not deny a woman the right to purchase a condo because of a decades-old drug conviction.

We should not fear the prospect ex-offenders living next door as much as we should fear “tough on crime” policy-writers. These laws increased sentence terms and established mandatory minimums. We’ve recently discovered that the more time an inmate spends behind bars, the more likely he is to re-offend after release.

There is a solution to the revolving doors of prison, mass incarceration, and rising recidivism rates. Barrett Brown points to Western Europe’s criminal justice model, saying “these countries have less recidivism because they put less constraints on former inmates so that they can actually get back on their feet.”

Criminality is not a permanent characteristic. It is certainly not genetic. Just like being Black doesn’t make you any more likely to commit a crime than someone who is white, one mistake does not denote an individual’s degree of morality. Remember: a little bit of forgiveness goes a long way.

Nolan Adams is a community activist. 

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