How to Transform America’s Criminal Legal System – Sponsor Content

T he United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but nearly 20 percent of its incarcerated people. The vast majority of people in prison—95 percent—will eventually be released, but nearly three-quarters will be rearrested within five years, often at great emotional and economic cost to their communities and their families.

How can the criminal legal system be transformed so that it increases public safety rather than feeding an inevitable cycle of social harm? It’s a question that the Vera Institute of Justice grapples with daily. Part think tank, part civil-rights organization, Vera seeks to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems—and end mass incarceration—by championing meaningful, rehabilitative justice for communities that are overcriminalized: people of color, immigrants, and people experiencing poverty.

The task of reform is hugely daunting: Every electoral-campaign season brings new calls for policies that are “tough on crime,” and the prison-industrial complex is an entrenched multibillion-dollar industry. ATLANTIC RE:THINK spoke with Nick Turner, president and director of Vera, about the myths upon which so many of our policies are built, and the steps we can take to construct a criminal legal system that is sensible, effective, and humane.

Atlantic Re:think

Seventy-one percent of Americans released from prison are rearrested within five years. What does Vera believe we can do differently to support formerly incarcerated people?

Nick Turner

We make prison dehumanizing, and people are worsened by it. Many people who are incarcerated are coming from places of concentrated poverty and facing challenges—a mental health condition, an addiction—that a punitive criminal legal system can’t address. We know from studies how harmful even two days spent in pretrial detention can be. Maybe you lose your job; maybe your kids are brought into the child-welfare system. Maybe you’re unable to pay rent.

We as a country stigmatize those who have been incarcerated. You may be ineligible for public housing. You are ineligible for certain forms of financial assistance for education. When you’re released, nearly 30,000 provisions in many state laws can deny you housing opportunities and the right to be licensed to pursue certain occupations. It’s all too easy to find your way back into the system. It’s not surprising, when you consider all this, that 71 percent of people will be rearrested within five years of release.

Atlantic Re:think

In February, Vera published the report “A New Paradigm for Sentencing in the United States,” calling for significant structural reforms to sentencing policy. What kinds of changes is the organization seeking?

Nick Turner

Only 1 to 5 percent of people engaged in unlawful behavior commit between 50 and 75 percent of violent crimes. But we’re sending a much higher proportion of people to prison, and for far longer than the countries we see as our peers do.

We should abolish mandatory minimums. We know that people age out of their “crime-prone” years. The apex is when you’re 18 to 20; then it starts to reduce dramatically. But more than 200,000 people currently have a life sentence in this country. Vera is calling for capping the maximum prison sentence at 20 years.

We also think that any crime should be eligible for a community-based sentence. Prison serves as a proxy for addressing harm and achieving accountability, but it doesn’t actually do either. Sometimes you can address the harm that’s caused and instill accountability through other means. It could be what is called “restorative justice”: “We’re keeping you in the community, but the person you harmed has a right to confront you about the harm you caused, which you have to account for.” We might require you to pay a fine, which is a policy in many other countries where prison is not so overused.

Crucially, the current system does not address the harm that victims experience. It pretends punishment serves that purpose, but the responsible party never has to apologize, never has to confront the harm they’ve caused. Victims are often left with the remnants of what happened. The government doesn’t help them to make up their losses of wages or deal with the trauma. It doesn’t even help them get an apology, which is sometimes enough.

Atlantic Re:think

What does a prison system that’s actually transformative look like?

Nick Turner

It prioritizes fairness and the elevation of human dignity. In five states, with our partner organization MILPA, Vera is establishing housing units grounded in dignity for young adults in adult prisons through an initiative called Restoring Promise. We’ve asked the people who live and work in the prisons to help us design the units. Young adults said, “It’s important for us to have more connection to our families on the outside,” so there’s expanded family visitation. They said, “Let’s create a mentor system,” so some older people in prison doing long sentences are mentoring the young people. Corrections officers are trained to engage in a different way.

In the first facility, in Connecticut, there was no violence during the entire two-year period Vera conducted its research. The corrections administration never once used solitary confinement. It’s compelling research that shows that you can reconceptualize the way in which people are held—and deliver safety [as a result].

Atlantic Re:think

Vera has recognized that immigrants who are in detention or facing deportation proceedings are especially vulnerable. How is their experience different from that of U.S. citizens, and how is Vera seeking to help them?

Nick Turner

The right to a lawyer is an integral part of the criminal legal system, but there’s no such right in the immigration system. An immigrant who’s facing deportation or is in detention often isn’t able to bring a lawyer to court—because of the cost. Vera is advocating for the right to government-funded legal counsel in these proceedings for anyone who cannot afford it.

As of February of this year, there were about 2.1 million cases in immigration courts. Fifty-nine percent of the people in those cases lacked lawyers. That means a very high risk of deportation—a trauma that’s experienced not only by the person whose case it is, but also by their family and their community. In cases since 2001, we found that only 6 percent of people were able to stay in the country without a lawyer. With a lawyer, that number goes up to 45 percent.

Atlantic Re:think

How is Vera’s work on federal education subsidies for people in prison connected to the goal of delivering public safety?

Nick Turner

In December 2020, Vera, with a broad coalition, was able to persuade Congress to reinstate Pell Grants, which had been taken away by the 1994 crime bill, for students who are incarcerated. Come July, that money will turn back on. We estimate 760,000 people will be eligible. All of the evidence supports that this is a truly rational thing to do. It keeps facilities safe because people are focused on their futures. People who earn a postsecondary education in prison are more likely to be employed and to have a higher income—and therefore less likely to be rearrested.

Atlantic Re:think

At a time when people are so concerned about public safety, how do you make the case that we should—whether through shorter sentences or incarceration alternatives—shrink our prison population?

Nick Turner

Everyone deserves safety. And we deserve real solutions that deliver it. We know that truly safe communities are not full of police and jails and prisons. We know that a tough-on-crime approach has not worked. The safest places in America are places where people have access to good jobs, housing, and schools. People support the police for the difficult jobs they do, but we know that we ask them to do too much, and that housing, mental health services, and substance-use treatment are often better answers than arrest and jail. Our research tells us this definitively.

Organizations across the political spectrum, including the right-leaning Prison Fellowship and the American Conservative Union, are working to reduce the size and scope of the criminal legal system. It’s going to take democracy to do this—from reforming our policing strategies, to who we elect as prosecutors, to what sentencing laws state legislatures pass, to the conditions of confinement. None of this had to happen, and it’s going to have to be undone by voters who are well-informed, understand the cost of what we’ve created, and seek different solutions.

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