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Talking the Mass Incarceration Epidemic

By Arnesa A. Howell

“The mass incarceration epidemic is a stain on our society,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 2019 Annual Legislative Conference. These words underscored the theme of the “Mass Incarceration In America: Where Do We Go from Here?” session.

As the discussion kicked off on Sept. 13, attendees jockeyed for seats to hear thought leaders address issues related to criminal justice reform, including the drivers of sentencing policies and legislation, and the role of community in ending the epidemic.

Here, JOBS Coalition Pathways excerpts some of the top insights from the panel, moderated by Tiffany Cross of the political platform The Beat DC.

Michael Eric Dyson, sociologist professor at Georgetown University, author and writer, on the most pressing issues in criminal justice today: We have to pay attention to the different laws and legislation put forth in the attempt to leverage this with our presidential candidates and others who are now putting this issue on the map. How can we have legitimate and quality forms of social reform, of criminal justice reform that talk about cash bail? That talk about the degree to which some of us would not be put in a perilous position if we were able to pay bond in a way that did not tax our families.

On the school-to-prison pipeline and the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities within the criminal justice system: When you talk about the people who are vulnerable racially and ethnically who have born the brunt, [it] is black, brown … First Nations [and] indigenous people. Look at the school-to-prison pipeline. When you’re kicking kids out of school at the ages of 3, 4, 5 and 6 … and then you’re setting them up to be stigmatized through detention, to be marked. The expulsion of black and brown kids earlier and earlier on under zero-tolerance policies is … lethal to our communities. We must intervene on the local [school] levels.

Topeka K. Sam, founder and executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, on incarceration disparities for women of color: I feel that women and girls should not be in jail, period. There are alternatives to incarceration. Women being primary caregivers of young children, women being sole bread winners and a lot of times women are getting caught up in ongoing conspiracies for different things that impact once the man goes. So, the woman ends up being left with a big burden and then she ends up getting caught up in something that lands her in prison. Women are the fastest growing segment going in.

On conditions for incarcerated women: I also understand that while they wait and while we have laws that we want to put in place to decarcerate, we have to make sure the conditions to confinement are more humane for people. That women are getting access to proper hygiene products, that we are not shackling women during child labor, that we’re making sure that families are reunited and children are brought closer. We have all of these issues that we face.