Today is the Fourth of July. In the United States, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in the most American way possible: gorging on food and drink and blowing shit up. Some of us will point out that the United States, following the example of Great Britain, Spain, and France, treated Natives like garbage and stole land. Others will proclaim how proud they are of this country, despite that shit stick in the White House.
But for over 2.3 million people in this country, today will be another day locked up in a prison or jail cell. We all know the statistics on those incarcerated: 40% black (despite 13% of the general population being black), and many people of color facing longer sentences for similar crimes to their white counterparts.
There is also strong data showing that recidivism is pretty damn high. That we are doing such a shitty job with people in prisons that once we release folks, they come back at such high rates, is a damning statistic.
Looking further, we see the "why" - 1 in 5 incarcerated individuals are in for drug offenses. In fact, less than 40% of our prison and jail population in the United States are people incarcerated for violent crimes against other people. Put another way: 62% of the 2.3 million people whom our country has decided should have no rights are being jailed for drug and property crimes.
So what the hell are we doing? As a nation, we are failing communities through investment (and lack thereof). Through institutional racism, and greasing the squeaky wheel at the cost of poor kids, we have set up a system that undeniably withholds success from black kids. And when people do things to survive, we have a system that rewards punishment over support. Adding in for-profit private prisons, and we, as a society, are encouraging more incarceration.
From there, we have put in place a system of legal financial obligations (LFOs) that makes restoration of basic rights that much more difficult. And sure, you can have a "job" while incarcerated, but be prepared for sub-minimum wages. in Washington, for instance, wages for prisoners ranges from $0.36 per hour to $2.70 per hour. So we crow about our successes for minimum wage workers when we vote for increases, yet we still are invoking the powers of slavery granted under the 13th Amendment.
That isn't to say we're not making strides in Washington. The move to "Ban the Box" in housing and employment means more people will have a better chance at re-integrating into society following incarceration. Whether that's enforced - who knows. Released felons aren't exactly on the top of the list for politicians to give a shit about.
But there are additional steps that I believe we can and should take to address recidivism, institutional racism, and create better outcomes. Some of the basics: stop jailing kids for non-violent crimes. Change sentencing guidelines for young people who are no longer minors. Stop killing young black people as an initial response to a crisis. Repeal I-200.
There has also been a push to eliminate out-of-school suspension in elementary schools, and it's showing great promise. In King County, the FIRS Program aims to provide a safe space for families to obtain services before there is a crisis in he household - and by all accounts, it's working.
One thing I would like to see Washington do for older offenders (beyond banning private prisons): start treating them like people. While the 13th Amendment applies to the entire country, the 10th Amendment allows Washington to decide for ourselves if we think slavery in the name of "justice" is appropriate. And I do not believe it is.
Folks are going to be incarcerated. But we can engage in systems to ensure more positive results once released. Job training and education in prisons that is high-quality, and through institutions that won't "give away" where the learning occurred. A minimum wage for all prison labor that reflects the area standards of wages. Instead of treating people who have committed crimes - in particular non-violent offenses - like garbage, and instead setting people up for success will yield more successes. Considering the disproportionate impact that jails and prisons have on communities of color, moving away from punishment to actual restorative justice can have longer-lasting effects that are net-positive for communities and families.
I like to think we're on the right track. But there still remains a lot of work to do if we are truly going to claim we are a land of "freedom." If "freedom" isn't accessible to all communities, then it doesn't really exist. And a part of that change requires a re-imagining and re-structuring of our justice system. I like to think we can do it if we really give a shit.
With that, the full text of Rob Now, Pay Later: