A new Department of Justice initiative represents an important step to mitigate the devastating consequences of mass incarceration
One of the big questions about Obama’s legacy is whether he will succeed in making a dent in the racial caste system, which legal scholar Michelle Alexander aptly calls the “New Jim Crow”. The extraordinary rise of incarceration in black and brown men and women over the past 35 years demands a dramatic intervention. And Obama may just be delivering.
This week the Department of Justice (DoJ) unveiled sweeping federal initiatives designed to model a new and progressive framework for prisoner reentry in the US. They represent important steps to mitigate the devastating consequences of mass incarceration.
The cornerstone of the DoJ’s new initiative is a reimagining of the Federal Bureau of Prisons through reforms that assist, facilitate and enhance efforts to design successful reentry programs for every federal inmate. This includes maintaining familial relationships, cultivating educational opportunities, offering mental health and substance abuse services, and organizing halfway houses and transitional resources upon release.
The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, Julian Castro, joined Lynch in Philadelphia as she announced the Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program, a joint DoJ-HUD effort designed to ease obstacles to employment, housing and education to ex-offenders under the age of 25. With 185,000 18- to 24-year-olds in federal and state jails and more than 50,000 under 21 in juvenile detention centers, Lynch’s announcement aims to stem the crisis of youth incarceration memorable examined in Bryan Stevenson’s heartbreaking bestseller Just Mercy.
“Our failure to provide opportunities to reentering individuals represents an enormous waste of human potential,” argued Lynch. “But it is also a betrayal of the principles of equality and opportunity that make this country strong, principles that our founders wrote into law just a few miles from here at Independence Hall and that generations of Americans have fought to defend and expand.”
This betrayal extends from the top branches of elected government to circuit courts, prosecutors, judges and a wide tapestry of law enforcement officials and agencies that both actively and passively have participated in one of the greatest moral and political catastrophes of our era.
The policies announced by the attorney general will be buoyed by 500 national reentry events that seek to highlight community resources for ex-offenders, and offer legal services, job fairs and help with securing state identification, a barrier for many seeking employment. On this score, Lynch has written to every governor in the US requesting state identification for ex-offenders to ease the stigma of carrying a Bureau of Prisons ID card.
While the DoJ should be applauded for these efforts, they represent only a small drop in the vast ocean of criminal justice inequality that persists across the nation. In truth, while these policy initiatives are important, even crucial, they lack the financial resources to radically alter the debilitating status quo.
States where unequal justice and institutionalized racism have been normalized house the bulk of inmates nationally. But these federal efforts offer a framework for how substantive policy changes might help to mitigate the residue of America’s sprawling penal system. More importantly, they offer hope and indirect acknowledgement of the impact of social movements on politics and policy.
The DoJ’s latest intervention, however incremental, would not have happened without the passionate nationwide demonstrations organized and inspired by Black Lives Matter activists and organizations.
This movement shot a jolt of electricity into pre-existing prisoner rights networks and intensified the voices of leading writers dedicated to exposing the inequalities of the criminal justice system. The works of Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Heather Ann Thompson, Khalil Muhammad, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vesla Weaver and scores of others have been amplified by a social movement that has argued that America’s criminal justice system is a gateway to multiple system of structural and institutional racism, economic injustice and state-sanctioned violence.
Unfortunately mitigation is not justice. Reentry programs, employment and educational opportunities, and securing a proper ID are not in and of themselves a restoration of citizenship rights, which have been and remain permanently stripped from ex-offenders.
Their ultimate retrieval will depend on an acknowledgement of the depth and breadth of black humanity that American democracy as of yet stubbornly refuses to recognize. That’s why communities of all colors, nationally and globally, must persist in reminding the nation with a clarion call that is at once painfully specific and universally transcendent: that Black Lives Matter even in a nation whose history and contemporary policy insists that they do not.
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