Coalition Works to Have One Million Fewer People Behind Bars

An alliance is emerging across party lines that says criminal justice reform can’t happen soon enough.
Van Jones (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Jul 4, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared on CNN and been published by The Grio, The Progressive, and The Guardian.

As a 17-year-old honor student, Shaka Senghor was shot and hospitalized. The experience made him paranoid, hyper-violent, and fearful. Fourteen months later, he shot and killed a man and was sent to prison. He reacted to his imprisonment with more hostility, ending up in solitary confinement for seven years.

While incarcerated, Senghor read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and began a transformation. Receiving mentorship from “lifers” and support from family, Senghor began addressing the hardships he had experienced, such as growing up in an abusive environment, and how they had affected him. He began to write in a journal and to atone for his past actions, seeking forgiveness and forgiving himself. When Senghor was released in 2010 after 19 years, he dedicated himself to transforming the community that spawned him. He now teaches at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Senghor is also director of strategy and innovation at #cut50, an organization with the ambitious goal of reducing the nation’s prison population by half over the next decade.

RELATED: Sleepless Nights and Screaming: One Woman’s 2-Month Stint in Solitary

Amid the political division and dysfunction in Congress, a consensus is emerging on both sides of the aisle that the policies that led to these figures need to be changed. Liberals mostly come to the issue from a social justice perspective, and though conservatives in the criminal justice reform movement were largely motivated initially by fiscal concerns, talk in Republican circles has turned to how the experience prison affects one’s “well-being.”

So, Why Should You Care? The United States has the world’s largest prison population at 2.4 million. With 5 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s prisoners, it also has the highest percentage of its population behind bars: one in every 100 American adults. Seventy million people have a criminal record. The U.S. spends $80 billion annually on incarceration. People of color are disproportionately imprisoned, and those with a criminal record are often marked for life.

Founded by Van Jones, a former Obama policy adviser and the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, #cut50 brings together some of these unlikely allies to promote smart criminal justice reforms that have a proven track record. The bipartisan group has formed a coalition with organizations across the political spectrum, from the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance to the Republican-led group Right on Crime and the business-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council.

Jones is joined by Jessica Jackson, an attorney who has represented death row inmates and has personal as well as professional experience with America’s bloated prison system—her husband developed a drug problem and was sentenced to 15 years in Georgia.

Matt Haney, #cut50’s director of policy, is a member of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education, where he has sought to address the school­-to-prison pipeline. Haney sees an unprecedented opportunity to roll back mass incarceration. “Just in the last five years, 32 states have reduced their rates of imprisonment [while also seeing a drop in] crime rates,” he said.

In March, #cut50 convened the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform to discuss potential legislative efforts. Eighty-four speakers, including members of Congress, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addressed more than 700 attendees; President Obama sent a video message.

In June, #cut50 launched #JusticeReformNow, a petition calling on Congress to roll back mass incarceration. #cut50 says this is an issue that people care about when asked but find difficult to address if they don’t have a personal connection.

A week later, Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., introduced the SAFE Justice Act, which is inspired by state efforts and data- and research-based methods of lowering incarceration rates while maintaining public safety. The legislation would seek to reduce recidivism though prison programs and by supporting reentry of the incarcerated back into society, addressing prisoners’ mental health and drug issues, limiting mandatory minimum sentencing to drug kingpins rather than low-level dealers, and making better use of alternatives to prison, such as probation. Further, the bill would require a fiscal impact statement attached to any future sentencing and corrections proposals and provide for training of police officers on de-escalation methods and dealing with people with mental health needs, as half of police shootings involve people who are mentally ill.

In addition, the act would satisfy a key demand of the emerging anti–police brutality movement, which is police accountability in the form of a reliable database on police shootings. No such data exists at the federal level. According to #cut50 leaders, the SAFE Justice Act, which enjoys the support of law enforcement, seeks to take racial bias out of the system by addressing the most damaging and devastating impacts of criminal justice policies on communities of color. The legislation is scheduled for a hearing in September; #cut50 hopes to help line up 60 cosponsors.

“Our overreliance on prisons has failed America. It is past time for both political parties to come together and fix a bad system of their own making,” said Jones in a joint statement with Gingrich. “We believe this moment offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reforms that will save entire communities and transform the lives of millions of Americans. We must not let it pass.”

#cut50 plans two summits in the fall, one on best practices for managing ex-prisoners and reducing recidivism, the other to look at how minorities are disproportionately incarcerated. The group hopes a digital media campaign with Huffington Post will highlight and elevate the voices of many thousands affected by the criminal justice system, people with something positive to contribute to society but who are unable to because prisons have become places to warehouse bodies rather than to rehabilitate them. People like Shaka Senghor.