This past month I was exposed to two headlines – “Phoenix man feared family was about to be ‘executed’ by police over stolen doll” and “A second chance squandered — cracks in metro Atlanta justice system exposed.” It presents two ways in which we view criminality. We see in one instance, a police officer on the verge of taking justice into his own hands based off of criminal suspicion. On the other hand, we see a Black man who continued to commit criminal activity after being given chance after chance. We are often presented these two dueling narratives in a competitive format to reductively dismiss one action for the other with little room for both to exist. Both can be true and evidence of a failed system that needs reform and, more importantly, room to reform.
From all ideological perspectives, criminal justice reform is taking root in American’s psyche. Those ideological perspectives can range from those who view criminal justice reform from a purely humanitarian perspective to a purely financial perspective. (It’s not cost-effective to lock people up.) And there are those whose perception of criminal justice reform is more complex than what many activist or advocates are aware of. For instance, Black people are more concerned than white people about violent crime (75 percent to 46 percent). Yet, in the same study, 84 percent of Black people surveyed say the police treat them unfairly. Both can be true. You can need policing in your community and be concerned about the negative effects of increased policing in your community.
Although many would ideological identify me as a left-leaning liberal, a progressive (or whatever else self-proclaimed “social justice warriors” call themselves), I’m driven by pragmatism—envisioning an ideal future but balancing it with what is possible now. This means my views on criminal justice reform are more nuanced than #AbolishPrisons. (Yes, break up prisons as much as possible. In addition, let’s reconsider how prisons are built.) Also, I’m no criminal justice reform expert, advocate or activist. Therefore, my perception of reform is completely from the perspective of an everyday citizen. This nuance is often missing from the conversation because of the narratives people (often the Left) buy into, positioning Black people as victims that need saving. (Guess who are the ones that see themselves as captain save a negro?)
But self-righteousness will only move the needle on real criminal justice reform so far. Yes, we have the First Step Act. Yes, a president can pardon federal nonviolent offenders. And yes, we can legalize weed and expunge those records. Yet, none of these things will lead to substantial criminal justice reform. We need to have a conversation about punishment and restoration, which is often missing from the narrative of criminal justice reform. Some things we, including myself, haven’t completely reckoned with. The majority of those incarcerated are violent criminals. Violent Criminals have low recidivism rates and should be eventually released. (Receipt.)
I can remember watching a story on 60 minutes where Oprah interviewed people in solitary confinement. She was asked if she feels sorry for them. “No,” she curtly said. No one should feel sorry (or be forced to feel sorry) for a criminal. Yet, at the same time, one can see how ineffective and inhumane solitary confinement is. I may feel sorry for that the system, society and the people in his or her life have failed them. But that person also failed him- or herself. We have to accept that as true too. And even in my own limited scope of empathy, I know that in a productive society, there must be room for responsibility, restoration and redemption. Within that same scope, I completely understand the power of racism within the system that can cause the police to take the life of an innocent Black man and that can lock-up five innocent Black boys for crimes they did not commit, even when DNA proves so. Both truths can exist.
How we talk about criminal justice is overly simplified. As election season comes around and people start jockeying for support, we’ll start hearing more about candidates’ “Black agenda,” which often begins with criminal justice reform (even though our top polling issues often lead with racism, healthcare, jobs and education.) So, let’s reframe the conversation. Let’s talk about responsibility, restoration and redemption. I too bought into the myth that exonerating victims of the “war on drugs” would reduce mass incarceration. I too thought the federal government had more power to end mass incarceration than local elected officials. Narratives we are all guilty of buying into. But to get real about the issue of criminal justice reform, we must be honest and that honesty entails understanding the full scope and limitations of responsibility, restoration and redemption.