Criminal Justice Reform: Meeting the Moment for Positive Change

By Shawna Hamilton - January 20, 2020

Criminal justice reform. It is an issue that unites public figures as disparate as Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, Jared Kushner, Charles Koch, and Kim Kardashian. Whether prompted by the disastrous human toll, spiraling costs, the ineffectiveness of legislative and judicial policies, or related crises like homelessness or opioid addiction, criminal justice reform has emerged as a priority in our national consciousness.

Spurred by recent shifts in public attention and opinion, we now have what academics call a “policy window,” opening real opportunity for reform and change. Personally and professionally, I have delved deeply into this topic alongside some of my Pacific Foundation Services colleagues and foundation clients. Here, I will share what I’ve learned thus far and how, together, we can support solutions and urgently needed reforms.

Mass Incarceration: The Impact

Today, there is emerging consensus that our current system is broken—or worse, working as it was intentionally designed. Mass incarceration costs the U.S. more than $80 billion annually—and that’s just the correctional system—not including related legal, judicial, health and civic costs. There are 2.3 million people in American jails and prisons and another 7 million on probation and parole. The system disproportionately affects people of color, particularly individuals facing socio-economic hardships. The toll of this system is enormous on individuals, families, and communities. And a growing body of research shows it simply doesn’t work to protect or benefit society as a whole.

Working in the philanthropic space, we see the compounding negative effects of this system on those incarcerated, or their families, through the supportive services we fund (for example, in education or job training programs). The system perpetuates a recurring cycle: arrest, incarceration, release, and very often, re-arrest. A number of co-factors ranging from inadequate education opportunities, mental health issues, poverty, incarcerated parents, limited work experience, and substance abuse exacerbates this cycle. Many of these variables accompany a person’s journey into incarceration but few, historically, are addressed in a meaningful way during or after a person is put in jail or convicted of a crime. The system is designed for containment and punishment, with sparse examples of regard to rehabilitation or re-entry into society, addressing root causes associated with criminal behavior, or building a restorative bridge between offenders and victims of a crime.

The good news? Change is happening. In the past decade in California, former Governor Jerry Brown oversaw sentencing reform, improved laws relating to juvenile offenders, championed rehabilitation and re-entry programs, and reduced the state’s prison population by about 25 percent. In the fall of 2019, thanks to a mass commutation in Oklahoma, more than 500 prisoners convicted of low-level drug and theft cases were released and reunited with friends and family. There are many more good examples, and much more work to do.

A Human Approach to Reform

My education in the criminal justice arena went from theoretical to tangible thanks to an invitation from a PFS client, William “Bill” Glenn, a Trustee of the Morris Stulsaft Foundation and Steering Committee member of Insight-Out. Insight-Out runs programs within the prison system to “create the personal and systemic change necessary to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and growth.” Bill invited me to come to San Quentin and participate in one of their signature programs, GRIP (Guiding Range Into Power), a yearlong curriculum for inmates that builds personal accountability, emotional intelligence, and healing through a process that deconstructs the journey to crime.

At San Quentin, I had the opportunity to sit with 30 men who bravely shared their feelings and experiences. I heard stories of rejection, poverty, and grief supported by a facilitator of exceptional grace and power. The men brought the data I had studied vividly to life and left me feeling more committed than ever to the cause of criminal justice reform.

Soon after, I went on a site visit with another PFS foundation client to a county jail in Long Beach. There I met and spoke with incarcerated women. Like the men at San Quentin, their stories drove home the complexity of variables—from mental health challenges, to housing affordability, to racial and educational disparities—that so often accompany criminal behavior and imprisonment.

I have learned not only about the criminal justice system, but its consequences. I’ve seen firsthand that so much of the work to understand and advocate for reform is about showing up on a level playing field, not just coming in to audit and observe. As Insight-Out Executive Director Jacques Verduin so eloquently writes, “It took time to get to know [the men at San Quentin]—me to know them and them to know me. Race, class and economic differences evaporated as we spent time with each other, getting past the idea of one another and connecting with who we really are.”

My experiences have deepened my commitment to reform. The costs of incarceration—financial, human and societal—are tremendous. For those of us engaged in philanthropic work, we must ask why, as a nation, we continue to build prisons without treating the root causes of mass incarceration? It is those root causes we must collectively address.

PFS Client Foundations Driving Solutions

At PFS, our staff and clients are sharing knowledge and tackling the issues from various vantage points, from policy reform to funding direct services for those affected.

Case in point: Earlonne Woods, a former inmate at San Quentin and co-host and co-producer (with Nigel Poor) of the groundbreaking podcast EarHustle, focusing on the lived experience of being imprisoned. I was fortunate to meet Earlonne at a community event. I subsequently welcomed him and attorney Kate Chatfield, a leading advocate in reform efforts across the state, as guests to meet with PFS staff at one of our internal “Lunch & Learn” conversations, a chance for staff to explore an area of interest in an informal learning event held over our lunch hour.

Earlonne is passionate about repealing California’s “3 strikes” law, a mission shared by one of PFS’s newer clients, the Bylo Chacon Foundation. PFS was able to make a connection between Earlonne and Bylo Chacon, which led the foundation to make a $25,000 grant to the Smart Justice California Education Fund for a research and canvasing project focusing on a possible repeal of three strikes sentencing.

The Stulsaft Foundation, dedicated to the well being of Bay Area children and youth, also funds in the criminal justice arena through its educational support program. Stulsaft recently awarded $40,000 to Project Avary, which works exclusively to support children with incarcerated parents, working both with the adult and child to heal and disrupt generational cycles of incarceration.

A Broader Role for Philanthropy

Perhaps most promising is the way in which increased attention on this issue is helping to give voice to the individuals and communities affected by mass incarceration. It is in hearing from those who are impacted, who would otherwise be invisible to most of us, that we can begin to humanize the problem. In that process, we begin to understand the intersectionality between mass incarceration and its related issues, from homelessness, to education, to substance abuse, and mental health, and once we identify the patterns, the potential for scalable solutions backed by both public and private support emerge.

While the scope of the problem can feel overwhelming, one overarching objective is clear: we must work together to lessen the number of incarcerated people while advancing public safety. Thankfully, this is no longer viewed as an either-or proposition, and as criminal justice reform captures the public interest, now is our moment for action and reform.

To learn more about this important issue, visit these links to additional resources:

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