Activism and Reform

Like any large scale program, the criminal justice system- specifically that of the penal system- has chinks in its armor and corruptions in its implementations. Although it’s true that no system is perfect, it has only been recently that the imperfections within the penal system have begun to come to light. As a direct result from this, programs designed to revamp the system on the side of fairness have begun to blossom, spreading both in numbers and in influence.

Prison reformation programs take shape under three basic categories:

  1. Reform of the structure of outside communities or their policies
  2. Reform of the Criminal Justice system
  3. Belief that prisons are ineffective and should be abolished

Each of these categories have their own place and their own advocacy groups within society.

“One of the downsides to the escalation in sentencing, you know, the penalties- especially mandatory minimums- it allows prosecutors to say that ‘we’re going to put you away for forty years and you’re going to do that hard time if you don’t sign this piece of paper.’ You might think you’re innocent, but if the facts are kind of ambiguous and you know the prosecution can put together a pretty good story that makes you look really bad- and if you’re black and you know the jury is going to be almost 90% white- you don’t want to roll the dice like that. And usually you have enough social knowledge because of what has happened to other people in your world that you know it’s a pretty sketchy proposition. And often people if they say ‘okay, we’re going to give you five years hard time or forty if you don’t take the deal’, they’ll cave in. And they’ll do that. Especially if they’ve been cooling their heels in prison for several months awaiting trial. And they can drag that period out, drag that process on a long time.. They can put somebody who’s never been by themselves doesn’t have much of a thought life, and you put them in a cell and let them vegetate for a few months, they get desperate. So there’s all these pressures that impend… And I had no idea that the criminal justice system works this way. It didn’t use to. Far more cases used to go to trial: it used to be like 25-30% of criminal charges ended up in the courtroom. But when you’re going for mass incarceration and you want to lock up 2.2 million people, or in the state of Texas 150,000 folks, you don’t have the judicial infrastructure to handle that many jury trials. And so they had to come up with this way of greasing the wheels and making the system a lot more efficient from a prosecutorial perspective.” -Alan Bean

As Mr. Bean mentions, one of the key reasons our prisons are currently so overwhelmed stems from a system that favors the overeager prosecutor. Many of the people sentenced to jail don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer willing to devote much time and effort on defending their case, so these people wind up in prison whether they’re guilty or not. Mr. Bean himself works to change this with his organization Friends of Justice, a non profit group dedicated to ensuring resources to those who otherwise wouldn’t have them. Although there are several other similar organizations out there, this problem continues to balloon outward.

“It’s leveled off. In the state of Texas it was like 152,000 and we’ve come down to 145,000-150,000 depending on the year, and there’s been a lot of celebration. Texas has gotten a lot of good publicity- and I think deservedly so- for ending this steady number of people who are being prosecuted  and people being convicted, and then the lengths of the sentences. We’ve been able to plateau the situation.The big challenge is, if you want to end mass incarceration, there are so many people whose jobs depend on perpetuation of the status quo. That is really difficult as a practical matter to do it. It’s one thing to conceive of it… I was telling the folks up in Minneapolis that I wen tot a convening a couple of years ago. It was people of faith. And it was put together by one of the mainline denominations in Washington DC. So we had like 40 people of faith who were involved in addressing the issue of mass incarceration. And this was our second convening, so they kind of wanted to move towards closure. So they asked the question: what is our strategy? Then we broke up into small groups and everybody had to come up with a strategy. How were we going to end mass incarceration, how long will it take- you know, the usual things that you’re supposed to be able to tell people, especially if you’re writing a grant. And they came up after this process and said that they were going to end mass incarceration in two years. Two years ago. And so I said ‘why do you think you can do that?’ and somebody else said ‘well a study has been done that if there was enough political will and everybody was on the same page, it would take two years to get the prison population back to where it was in 1972 or whenever.’ And I said, ‘yeah, but there isn’t the political will. In fact, there are a lot of vested interests.'” -Alan Bean

There are many penal abolitionists out there who believe that the prison system does not serve its purpose and should be done away with. Obviously they haven’t won yet, for several reasons: 1. the general public does not want to think about ‘inmates running loose’. They don’t understand that a lack of prisons does not mean freedom to convicts, but rather a reformation based system. 2. the general public believes ‘they committed the crime, now let them serve the time.’ 3. because there isn’t support for prison reform within the general public, politicians don’t support it either