Written by Richard Branson and Van Jones, exclusively for the A3A criminal justice blog series.
From the perspective of philanthropic institutions and individuals, criminal justice is not a distant problem that primarily concerns governments. The failures of the criminal justice system, from mass incarceration to egregious racial inequalities, have had such profound corrosive impacts that they can no longer be ignored.
With 2.3 million people in the US prison system, 7 million on parole or probation, and 1 in 3 African-American men expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetime, we are facing a crisis of dramatic proportions. The system is so fundamentally broken that its very capacity to deliver justice has to be called into question. Equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and due process are frequently and often quite deliberately violated, tipping the scales to a point that conviction or acquittal are no longer a question of guilt or innocence, but rather a matter of socio-economic status and race. If you can’t pay for a good defence, the odds are stacked against you. If you are black or Hispanic and can’t pay for your defence, you are screwed.
It’s an unacceptable status quo that also weakens America’s moral authority abroad. Indefinite solitary confinement, life without parole for minors and the fact that one in nine death row inmates will eventually be exonerated do not exactly strengthen our negotiating position when trying to stand up for human rights elsewhere.
Beyond the staggering facts, the broader consequences are quite clear: this crisis threatens to roll back and undo years, if not decades, of social progress, much of which was accomplished with passionate support from the philanthropic community. Public health goals are undermined by everything from stress related-illnesses to high HIV transmission rates within prisons. Family formation is interrupted; children lose contact with incarcerated parents. Economic development is undercut when large numbers of African-Americans have felony convictions that lock them out of the job market. No question, if the legacies of the civil rights movement, of the fight for equality and of the war against poverty are to endure, we are all called upon to join forces and help restore justice, dignity, fairness and equality – the bedrock principles of healthy, equitable and prosperous societies.
To be frank, this is a momentous challenge many philanthropic organisations have to come to terms with as they seek to find their own role in the 21st century. Much of philanthropy still prefers to treat symptoms, rather than pushing for systemic change. It’s time to shift our priorities.
How can this be done? First of all, reform needs champions and resources. Modern philanthropy should be prepared to provide both.
Part of the exercise is to listen to the voices of the criminal justice reform movement. The wider public, as well as mainstream media, are only slowly beginning to understand the extent of the problem. As advocates, champions and thought leaders, philanthropies can help amplify awareness of the causal relationships between a broken system and its devastating impacts. There is enormous room for positive and meaningful programmatic work to highlight best practices, vocally support reform efforts and grassroots initiatives.
The good news is that change is happening. Ballot initiatives and legislative proposals seek to undo years of injustice. Unlikely alliances are forming across party lines and ideological positions, recognizing that the human and economic cost of these continued injustices, estimated as in excess of $80 billion a year, is not just unsustainable, but also deeply un-American
While the window for change is open -- with so much at stake for so many -- philanthropy needs to continue working open doors of opportunity, while doing everything possible to close prison doors. Both are necessary.
In a city that has come to symbolize the growing inequality gap, The Nation magazine hosted a conversation about the country’s inequality crisis with a panel of experts. San Francisco was the city, and Less Equal than Ever was the theme, and the occasion was the 150th birthday of the magazine begun by anti-slavery abolitionists in 1856.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Dream Corps Founder Van Jones, National Domestic Workers Alliance Director Ai-jen Poo and The Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel talked about “the greatest threat to the world,” according to a 2014 Pew survey. It’s a core issue on which The Nation has long been sounding the alarm. The event was co-presented by the Commonwealth Club November 17 at the packed Herbst Theater.
Moderator Judge LaDoris Cordell opened with a trick question: “Who said this? ‘‘Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before.’”
The answer surprised the crowd. It was Mitt Romney, earlier this year, just one example of how Republicans are now incorporating this message along with Democrats.
“The wealth controlled by the top tenth of the top 1 percent has more than doubled over the past 30 years in the United States, approaching unprecedented levels,” said Cardell. “Are we about to tip?” she queried the panel.
“No,” said Robert Reich with finality, then dramatic silence that brought a laugh from the audience. Then he continued, “The good news is inequality is something people are talking about. For Republicans, this is fashionable to talk about now.”
For Ai-jen Poo, a conversation about inequality starts with wages. “Low wage workers are organizing now, fighting for $15. Starbucks baristas. Walmart workers--they’re organizing with the same vibrance of Black Lives Matter. We are in the early stages of next great social movement,” said Poo.
“From an African American perspective, the conversation about inequality starts with mass incarceration. It is, in fact, the most significant defining issue of the African American community,” said Van Jones, founder of #Cut50, a national initiative to cut prison population by 50% in 10 years. “The incarceration rate of African Americans is six times that of their peers, though their white counterparts are doing drugs at the same rate. You can’t give African Americans a fair shot at equality in this society if you’re making them felons for doing the same thing as young kids in college or some of you are doing this weekend.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has been Editor of The Nation since 1995 and a frequent commentator on inequality, said, “Cynicism about government is the wrong way to go. Blaming people is dead politics on arrival. Show how you can improve the conditions of people’s lives.”
Poo jumped in to give concrete ideas for improving 27 million lives in the upcoming “silver tsunami”: The senior (85+) population is the fastest growing and soon to be the largest demographic ever. Homecare is such a fast-growing occupation that the average median income is still just $13,000. By 2050, 27 million people will need care. “If we could connect the dots, we could invest in an infrastructure now,” said Poo. “This is the kind of inequality agenda that connects people across race and ideology.”
Cordell concluded the evening asking each panel member, “What would you do about inequality if you were elected President?” Poo said she would create a new system to support caregiving for families. Jones said end mass incarceration. Vanden Heuvel said end America’s endless engagement in wars. Reich had the last word. “Get big money out of politics,” he said. Reich underscored his optimism to close out the evening. “I’ve been teaching for 35 years,” said Reich, a professor at University of California, Berkeley. “I’ve never seen a more idealistic group of young people than the current one. We can build a coalition working toward equality based on interconnectedness. As the market tilts and the wealthy have even more power, grassroots organizations will be the countervailing power in working for equality.”
Alicia Keys took to a different stage this week to ask Congressional members to sign a petition for justice reform that she will deliver to President Obama once it reaches 1 million signatures.
Alicia Keys speaks to lawmakers.
"I am a mother," said Keys. "My heart is breaking for mothers left behind by incarceration, struggling to hold it all together. There are 1.1 million fathers in prison and 5 million children with a parent in prison. Is that our America? Is this who we are now?"
Keys began the day in East Baltimore with #Cut50's Van Jones. Her organization We Are Here joined forces Monday with #Cut50, which aims to reduce prison sentences by 50 percent in 10 years.
In the same community where unarmed black man Freddie Gray died earlier this year in police custody, Keys talked to children and mothers forced to support their children alone, stigmatized. "Their lives are full of stress and they do their best not to lose hope. In a way they have been imprisoned too," said Keys.
Van Jones, Alicia Keys and U.S. Senator Cory Booker.
She spoke to children affected and mothers whose children were tried as adults when they were as young as 14. “We can no longer afford to be this cruel to our young," said Keys. “These are just regular boys and girls trying to find their way."
Felicia "Snoop" Pearson of the HBO series "The Wire" gave Keys and Jones a tour of the street where she grew up, of boarded-up row houses and a funeral home where many of her friends ended up way too young. Snoop was born a premature crack baby to a mother who was in and out of prison and a father she never knew but who was believed to be a local stick up artist. She was convicted of second-degree murder at age 14, sentenced to 16 years, and released after 6½. Snoop spoke of the difficulty of re-entry into society, a subject Keys addressed later that day on Capitol Hill.
Snoop gives Jones a tour of the street she grew up on.
"Currently, when released, ex offenders are forced into a life in the shadows," said Keys. "They can’t vote, they’re ineligible for public housing, food stamps, and often barred from formal employment due to their status as convicted felons. We need to ban the box on job applications. It's up to the private sector. Starbucks and Facebook have no box to tick, showing us the power in believing in second chances."
In less than 30 years, since the "war on drugs" began, the penal population has risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million. It costs between $30,000 and $100,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders could save $40 billion a year. "Can you imagine the good a mother could do with that money?" Keys asked Congressional lawmakers, urging them to sign the petition.
"Moments of opportunity like this come along once in a generation," said Jones, who also spoke to the packed room about letting judges judge and providing alternatives to prison like rehab and job training.
Jones introduced one of the most vocal leaders of criminal justice reform, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who spoke of the progress in introducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. It would be the most significant federal action in decades and has the backing of the White House, where Obama has made criminal justice reform a pillar of his second-term agenda.
Keys meets with Baltimore kids affected by incarceration.
Keys' deep, rich voice filled the room as she spoke of an extraordinary moment to change the country, and her performer's instincts crept in as she punctuated her words with expressive hands and measured each word musically: "You have the ability to change things. Not them. You. Us. We."
As this is our first This Week in Dream Corps blog, let me explain how it is here. At our Dream Corps office in downtown Oakland, you could be talking about ending mass incarceration one minute, training disadvantaged youth to code the next, then getting dirty energy to invest in the communities they pollute. You have to think fast because there’s breaking news in each of our three arenas all week long. It’s kind of fun to try to keep up, and to see all the connections from our Oakland office to current events--for example:
Oprah recently bought the movie rights to our own #cut50 Director of Strategy Shaka Senghor’s memoir.
Or there was the time last week that a police officer assaulted a non-violent student in South Carolina, and our #Cut50 Director of Policy Matt Haney quickly responded in the press because he happens to be VP of the San Francisco School Board and championed an innovative alternative to student discipline that avoids herding kids into the legal system.
Twitter, eBay, Yelp, Pinterest, Square and dozens of other tech leaders recently announced they are teaming with #YesWeCode to hire non-traditional candidates over the next 5 years in light of a million-worker shortage coming by 2020.
And when the EPA added the Clean Power Plan to the Federal Registry in late October and 26 states immediately sued to block it, our #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong took to the road to bust the myths and share the success stories of real Californians whose energy bills did not in fact go up as the naysayers predicted--like Maria Zavala, whose bill went from $200 a year to $1.50.
Maria Zavala & family, photo courtesy of The Greenlining Institute and UpLiftCA
This week brought the usual whirlwind of interesting developments, and as usual our Dream Corps team was traveling all over the place.
Wednesday #GreenForAll Director Vien Truong and Dream Corps President Van Jones were speaking to a Hollywood crowd hosted by Mark Ruffalo that included Normal Lear and Alicia Silverstone. The event was called Hollywood United for a Healthy California, and the point, says Vien Truong, was “to tell Governor Brown to leave oil in the ground.” She talked to the entertainment industry crowd about the lies being told about how the green movement hurts low-income people. Van Jones said, "Good people got together and said let's take dollars out of polluters pockets and use those dollars to green up poor communities. It went from being a fantasy that people like me wrote bestsellers about but didn't know how to make happen to a fact today in California. California has invested $1 billion dollars in a clean power economy for poor folks in the last two years."
#GreenForAll's Vien Truong and Mark Ruffalo
Another cool conversation occurred in San Jose at the Verge sustainability conference between Van Jones and Tom Steyer, hedge fund manager and founder of Farallon Capital Management. Their keynote was called “The Business Opportunity Hiding in Plain Sight,” which was about getting the business crowd to engage all communities in the sustainability movement.
Van Jones, who is a CNN Political Commentator, appeared on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday as a panelist, and offered this meaty bone to chew on, “What’s so weird is that we’re in this moment where we have a white female who’s a front-runner for the Democrats. We don’t even notice that anymore. We now have an African-American man, front-runner for the Republicans. Ben Carson bewilders, I think most black Democrats. I mean, he certainly is professionally impressive. Personally, he can be somewhat impressive. Usually politically he’s probably the least impressive on that stage and yet, this morning, he was great.”
Finally, this week #YesWeCode got to pick the brains of the best in the business when they were selected out of 100 nonprofits to come to the Schwab Pro Bono Challenge in San Francisco and sit down the Charles Schwab’s CFO, two VPs, and a senior manager and discuss how to beginning thinking about the scholarships they will offer to 100,000 low-opportunity youth. The lightbulb moment for the #YesWeCode team was learning from the experts that when you go to a corporation to get money, fit yourself into their models--take advantage of H.R., because that’s where the money is, so instead of asking for donations, #YesWeCode should consider themselves a placement service thereby getting a fee for bringing in talent from an untraditional pipeline. It was a very practical conversation, which is exactly what the team was looking for.
Oh boy, next week we’ve got a lot more coming down the pike to tell you about...
(CNN) Everyone knows that ambitious, bipartisan legislation is completely impossible to pass in today's divided and dysfunctional Washington right?
By year's end, President Barack Obama could sign into law major criminal justice reforms -- passed because of the leadership and full engagement of the congressional GOP.
On Thursday, key leaders took a major step toward that outcome as Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015, a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that will start chipping away at our unjust, unaffordable system of mass incarceration.
Over the past 40 years, the United States has fought the drug war in the worst way possible -- by jailing those who simply needed help with their addiction or mental illness. Meanwhile, we have targeted and disproportionately sentenced black and brown Americans, as well as those from poorer neighborhoods. And we have created a system that costs too much, imprisons too many, and does too little to truly keep us safe.
Now, nearly 25% of the entire world's prison population is behind bars right here in the land of the free. The federal prison population in particular has skyrocketed, soaring more than 800% since 1980.
With all this in mind, there are three reasons we should all be excited about the SAFE Justice Act.
First, the act will safely and smartly reduce our prison population over time. It will refocus our prison system on those who are an immediate threat to others, not people caught in a police sweep with a small amount of marijuana. The act will also reform mandatory minimums to help snag big traffickers -- but without condemning nonviolent offenders to long prison sentences. Instead, it will expand the use of alternative sentencing like probation, drug courts, and medical treatment for addiction or mental illness. And finally, it will help people get their lives back on track when they get home.
It does all this in smart, sensible ways that have already been piloted and proven at the state level. Both red and blue states have shown that you can lower prison populations, reduce costs, and cut crime by instituting evidence-based alternatives to sentencing, giving judges more discretion, and allowing targeted releases of those who are unlikely to offend again.
In short, the SAFE Justice Act will bring those who pose no danger back to their families by taking the best of state policy and implementing it at the federal level. That is how our system should work.
Second, the act offers a chance at comprehensive justice reform legislation.
The reality is that our system of mass incarceration is simply too interconnected and complex to fix piecemeal. It makes little sense, for example, to send people home from prison without changing the way the "felon" label marks them for life -- preventing them from voting, getting jobs, or even having roofs over their heads. Reforming re-entry into the community without revising mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes leaves too many in jail for far too long -- far longer than other advanced nations. Reinvent prisons without transforming policing and sentencing, and you simply replace one generation of the needlessly jailed with another.
There are a number of good bills that have been introduced in the Senate that do in fact accomplish pieces of what the SAFE Justice Act does. But to reform an interlocking and tightly woven system, we need comprehensive fixes like this one.
Finally, the SAFE Justice Act presents a chance for bipartisan justice reform.
Both parties created this mess. Both parties must fix it. Richard Nixon may have declared the war on drugs, and Ronald Reagan may have turned it into a war on the impoverished, but Bill Clinton also helped create today's mass incarceration nightmare.
Republicans control both houses of Congress, meaning nothing will move without bipartisan support. Indeed, in the real world, there is no functional difference between holding out for justice reform with no Republicans involved and opposing reform altogether. It is time to come together, because suffering families do not have the luxury of waiting for ideological purity.
In states across the nation, leaders have taken a deep breath, stepped across the aisle, implemented serious reforms -- and it has worked. In fact, a range of existing justice reform legislation in the U.S. Senate has bipartisan co-sponsors. Criminal justice is one of the few issues where right and left agree, most recently demonstrated by a huge Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington.
That potential is coming together in a big way. Can such promise be fulfilled? I believe there is nobody more trusted to fix the prison system than Bobby Scott. And there is nobody more committed to cheaper, more effective government than Jim Sensenbrenner. If these two men can work together, then so can everyone else.
The next year will be full of partisan bickering and political grudge matches. But, just maybe, it will also see real bipartisan reform, sparked by two leaders who dared to think big.