With this issue, The Community Voice is launching a multi-year project “The Justice Report” designed to use the power of our reporting and outreach capacity to educate, inform, and empower our readers to bring about positive change in the criminal justice system. Here are a few of the issues we’ll work to address in the series:
OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM PUNISHES POVERTY
The United States government, Kansas, Missouri and in towns, cities and counties across the Midwest the criminal justice system punishes poverty. In fact, the criminal justice system fuels the cycle of poverty.
As an example, fines and fees placed on poor people charged with low-level infractions often trap people in poverty. The common practice of suspending drivers’ licenses when people fail to pay their fine is a perfect way to ensure the poor, unable to pay the debts, are also unable to earn a living that might have helped them to pay the outstanding debt.
Bail and Bond are another system that unfairly impacts the poor. On any given day, in jails across America, more than 50% of the people being held in jail are not there because they’ve been convicted of a crime. They are there because they can’t afford to make bail. Too often, individuals unable to bail out, spend more time in jail waiting for a trial than they would receive if convicted. In a game of cat and mouse, prosecutors offer individuals who can’t afford bail a way out of jail for time served, if they individual agrees to a plea. After weeks in jail, many of these individuals will sign anything to go home, not understanding the long-term economic percussions – too often poverty — of having a criminal record.
Jails are not full of rich or even middle class people. For them, these fines and fees are hardly a bump in the road, but for the poor, they are often insurmountable mountains they cannot climb. Still, the fine for a poor person is the same as it is for a millionaire. While that doesn’t represent an equal penalty or equal justice, very few fines, fees or bail programs across the country take into consideration an individual’s ability to pay.
PUBLIC DEFENDER IMPROVEMENTS
What public defender you ask? That’s probably a fair assessment, since these court appointed attorneys are so overworked that they barely know you and they know even less about your case. In yet another of those biases against the poor, public defenders offices are notoriously underfunded in comparison to the District attorney’s office. Why?
Books like Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” helped bring attention to America’s problem with over incarceration. You’ve probably heard the statement, “America has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s known prison population.”
Well how exact those numbers are is debatable, but for certain, too many people are locked up in America. Since Alexander’s book was published 11 years ago, there’s been only limited reduction in the harsh sentencing laws that are feuling this over population of our prisons.
Last year, Congress passed the FIRST STEPS Act which implemented some positive sentencing reform, but most of it was limited to changes in sentencing for those convicted of federal crimes. While it was a positive step, and overwhelming majority of prisoners in American are housed in state jails, and only state legislatures can change sentencing laws in their state.
State sentencing grids set minimum sentences based on the type of crime and leave little room for discretion by the judge. With the growing population in state prisons, most people will agree, the sentencing grids are too punitive especially for non-violent crimes. There’s certainly a need to look at creative alternatives to stiff prison sentences.
We don’t believe there’s a police department in the country that could not improve in some manner, yet this is another area where change doesn’t come easily. After a summer of protest against excessive use of force by police officers, and calls to defund the police, the number of individuals murdered by police doesn’t seem to be decreasing.
Beyond death by police, our communities have grown tired of negative interactions with police. From excessive use of force to Driving While Black, still a problem in “the neighborhoods,” policy changes and some legal changes must be implemented.
Democrats in congress recently passed the Justice in Policing Act – that would create a national database of excessive-force encounters, limit legal protections for police and ban police chokeholds. A number of police reform bills have been pre-filed in the Missouri legislature this year. You can read briefly about those bills on page 8 of this issue. In an upcoming issue, we’ll dig deeper into those bills and how, or if, they might bring about positive change.
JUDICIAL SELECTION REFORM
We hope you never have to go before a judge, but it you do, how do you know if you have a fair one? What kind of systems can be implemented to honestly and accurately shine a light on biased and unfair judges? What about the judicial selection process, those names often at the end of your ballot? Have you ever questioned the difference between how a Republican judge versus a Democratic judge might rule and why are some jurisdictions electing their judges by political party while others aren’t?
MARIJUANA AND DRUG LAW REFORMS
This could fall under sentencing reform, but because of the rapidly changing marijuana laws in state’s across the country, we felt this topic deserved a separate look, especially in Kansas, which remains one of just a handful of states in the country that doesn’t have medical marijuana or legalized recreational marijuana. With changes in marijuana laws, states also need to take a look back at prisoners serving time under harsher drug laws to amend their sentence to coincide with existing laws.
BE A PART OF JUSTICE REFORM
As you can see, there’s a lot that needs to be addressed in the justice system, and two years probably isn’t enough time to give the topics justice and to accomplish our goal, to educate, inform and activate our readers. But we’re working to fund this project and put one or more people on this project, to conduct extensive research and to keep our readers and those who make decisions informed about problems and the potential for change.
Along the way, we hope we’re part of bringing about some positive change, but it will take all of us to make it happen, so we hope to build a large group, who can join us – armed with information – to speak out intelligently on these issue. Look for this project to include dedicated space on our website, and plenty of social media and shared posts on best practices and on things that aren’t right.
We encourage you to join us on this journey by signing up to receive the Justice Report newsletter. It will help keep you informed on our research and reports, and on can’t miss relevant justice issues from across the country.
To sign up for the newsletter, go to our website www.communityvoiceks.com. While you’re there, you can read some of our previous articles on this subject. Also sign up and follow us on social media
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