#RuthInAmerica: A tale of two conferences

Senior WJP journalist Ruth Hopkins is spending two and a half months in the United States with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and the Marshall Project in New York, investigating the similarities between issues facing both the American and South African criminal justice systems. Ruth will be detailing her journey through weekly blog posts published every Friday.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM is a hot topic in the United States. Not only did pop stars such as Beyonce and Kendric Lamar take a vocal stance on the issue, presidential candidates from both the Republican and the Democratic party have spoken about the issue or have been prompted to do so by the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama was the first president in American history to actually set foot in a prison.

Watching these events unfold from South Africa, I felt the momentum for reform was huge, a historic opportunity to change the brutal reality of the American criminal justice system; a country with 5 % of the world’s population, but it imprisons 25 % of the world’s inmates. Around 2,3 million people are living behind bars, a staggering 500 % increase over the past thirty years.

Worryingly, the majority of locked up people have a brown or black skin. In federal prison, roughly a third of inmates are African American, whereas only 13 % of the general population is black.

Even though there is unprecedented bipartisan interest in reforming prisons and the laws that govern them, the question is if the various groups rallying for reform, are on the same page.

Two conferences I attended in New York and Washington revealed the gap that exists in discourse, outlook and analysis between the right and the left. Or, more precisely, between the political elite and grass roots organizers.

Angela Davis, renowned prison rights activist, Black Panther and university professor, kicked off  (her presentation starts in the last 30 minutes) the Beyond the Bars conference at Colombia University, in the heart of historical African American Harlem.

Davis observed that even Newt Gingrich has changed his tune and has come out and said that the system is broken and that Republicans must lead the way in fixing it. Criminal justice reform has become a hot political issue. But, according to Davis, we should take a step back and not repeat the mantra that the system is broken, as many politicians believe, because this approach leads to the assimilation and blunting of radical approaches to end mass incarceration. The system, said Davis, cares more about warehousing people who are considered superfluous and this system is saturated with racism.

She called on the movement to change not mass incarceration, but incarceration as we know. Because otherwise the political elite will still find ways of deciding who are the ‘really bad people’ and who are not.

Several days later, I attended a different conference on criminal justice reform in the capital. The orthodox Jewish policy institute Aleph brought together speakers and thinkers from across the spectrum; from researchers working for the Koch brothers, to policy specialists with conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, to lawyers working for the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU). They shared panels and exchanged thoughts about how to change the system.

Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Institute opened one panel session by quoting an African proverb: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion”. She was referring to the unique bipartisan coalition that has sponsored several criminal justice reform bills in the Congress and Senate.

If the bipartisan coalition is a tangle of spider webs, then the lion must be mass incarceration. Iowa Republican Senator Grassley, who spoke at the conference, was confident the king of the jungle had been tamed. He spoke about the The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which passed the Senate and now awaits approval by Congress, as the ‘biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.’

The bill sets out to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for minor non-violent crimes. Its main selling point in terms of reducing mass incarceration is that mandatory minimum sentences are reduced for low level, non-violent offences. This should bring down the number of people who end up in jail, sometimes for years, for possession of marijuana, for example.

While speakers at both conferences spoke of a watershed moment in time, of stars seemingly aligning to make criminal justice reform happen, they nonetheless didn’t seem on the same page or even in the same book. The racial bias of the criminal justice system, for example, was not mentioned once during the Aleph conference, race was the proverbial elephant – or should I say lion – in the room. Any mention of Grassley’s sentencing bill, or the further reaching Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act— the SAFE Justice Act – during the Beyond the bars meeting was met with a derisive huff.

If the legislative proposals make it through both houses, in an election year, with a chilling standoff brewing over the Supreme Court of Appeals nomination, then mass incarceration will most likely be reduced. It remains to be seen if the racial bias of the criminal justice system – most blatantly expressed in the disproportionate number of people of colour behind bars – will be rooted out.  Because if the lion in the room is not mentioned or tamed, it will continue to roam free.





About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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