As the Executive Director of an organization on the front lines developing solutions to mass incarceration, mass homelessness and community violence, I work daily to serve the needs of Americans affected by these crises—out of which an estimated 70 million or more have some kind of criminal record. Each year, more than 600,000 individuals are released from Federal and State prisons, and millions more are released each year from local jails. Promoting the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals who have paid their debt to society makes communities safer by reducing recidivism and victimization; it assists those who return from prison, jail, or juvenile justice facilities to become productive citizens; and it saves taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration. Providing returning citizens with job and life skills, education programming, and mental health and addiction treatment increases the likelihood that they will be successful when released. Policies that limit opportunities for people with criminal records create barriers to employment, education, housing, health care, and civic participation. Addressing these barriers is critical to reducing recidivism and strengthening communities.
On November 30, 2016, The White House bought together emerging and established leaders from the advocacy, reentry service, philanthropic, business, and law enforcement sectors to lift up the progress and advancements that have been made and surface opportunities to tackle persistent problems. For nearly eight years, President Obama has traveled across the county and met with Americans who are working to fix the criminal justice system—from activists leading protests around the nation to law enforcement officials working to lower crime and incarceration rates to returning citizens earning their second chance. The President has taken steps to reform the federal approach to reentry by addressing barriers to reentry, supporting state and local efforts to do the same, and engaging the private sector to provide individuals who have earned a second chance with the opportunity to participate in the American economy. I was honored and humbled to receive an invitation to join Senior Administration Officials at the White House for a convening on criminal justice reform.
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, welcomed the group of distinguished guests and the stage was set with remarks from Community representative Kendra Smith; Courtroom representative Judge Victoria Pratt; and Cellblock representative Sue Ellen, followed by an armchair discussion with Senior Advisor Jarrett and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who provided an overview of President Obama’s historic work on criminal justice reform. This was followed by remarks from Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, panel discussions about Policing Reform led by DeRay McKesson, Campaign Zero, and Chief J. Scott Thompson, Camden County Police Department; a discussion on Sentencing and Jail Reform moderated by Stephanie Young, Senior Policy Engagement Advisor, and panel participants Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, DOJ, Lenore Anderson, Alliance for Safety and Justice, and Commissioner Sally Heyman, Miami Dade County. The final topic was Pathways to Successful Reentry, with panelists Norman Brown, Project New Opportunity, Leyla Martinez, Columbia University, and Bonnie Mroczek, Butterball Farms.
This work is extremely personal to me, having worked to improve criminal justice and reentry programs for many years. In BOSS, since I became Executive Director in 2013, I have sought out expert partners and funding to expand BOSS’s role in fighting mass incarceration and community violence—seeing them as equally as destructive and unjust to our communities as is the continuing crisis of mass homelessness and entrenched poverty. These crises do not exist in a vacuum—our policies created them, and new policies can resolve them. In BOSS, we worked with the Alameda County Probation Department to create an innovative Career Training and Employment Center, originating in Oakland and expanding soon to Berkeley, Hayward, Fremont and Livermore, in collaboration with La Familia, that connects returning citizens with education, training, and jobs, as well as social support services. We work with the City of Oakland to create education and employment pathways for young people impacted by criminal justice, as well as a street outreach team working in high-risk neighborhoods affected by violence and crime, to give youth and families positive alternatives. There are amazing, successful, innovative solutions like this being implemented across the East Bay and across the country.
I admire and salute President Obama for the leadership and commitment he has provided to strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, investing more than $2 billion to retain or hire 10,000 police officers. Among other initiatives, the President created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to develop a blueprint for building trust between law enforcement and communities, and the White House launched the Police Data Initiative. He commuted the sentences of more men and woman than the past six presidents combined, underscoring his commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. He established a clemency initiative to encourage individuals who were sentenced under outdated laws and policies to petition for commutation.
The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Solitary confinement is increasingly overused with heartbreaking results – which is why the President directed the Attorney General to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. In response to that review, the President banned solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions in the federal prison system, expanded treatment for the mentally ill, and increased the amount of time inmates in solitary in federal prisons can spend outside of their cells.
This is only a snapshot of the remarkable progress that has been made under President Barack Obama that states, counties and cities across America should implement. Mass incarceration, like mass homelessness, is not a natural phenomenon: Americans created the inequitable system and we have the power to fix it. It is time to continue this work, to continue the fight and never allow a return to draconian policies that have demonstrative negative impacts on individuals, families and communities. It is important to not only recognize the underlying structural causes of poverty, human rights violations, and social injustice, but each individual must stand in truth and join as a collective to continue the never-ending fight to right these wrongs.
– Donald Frazier, BOSS Executive Director