Poor law enforcement has often upended the lives of people of color in the United States. For example, in 2012 my already long distance relationship got even more distance. My partner got into a car accident and received a ticket requiring him to appear at the recorder’s court in Dekalb County, Georgia. He tried to explain his case to the judge, but walked away with not only a steep fine, but also probation, a fact that blindsided both of us.
A few weeks later he relocated to Miami to work but was required to return at least once a month to pay the fine. The company that managed the probations was a privately owned and the woman assigned to his case was often lackadaisical. At times he would show up to her office and she would not be there. When he would try and call to arrange payments via the mail rather than in person, she would not answer her phone.
When he finished paying the ticket back, he tried to confirm whether or not his probation had ended, but he could not get in touch with the officer. He eventually had to call her manager to get everything worked out. Yet, had he violated the probation or failed to pay the fine every month, he would have been imprisoned.
Years later we discovered something that shocked us – the very same court was now facing a potential class action lawsuit. There’s even an entire website dedicated to the case. On January 29, 2015 the ACLU filed against Dekalb County on behalf of a teenager Kevin Thompson because they jailed him after he could not afford to pay the probation company fees.
Another woman, Christina Williams, had a similar story to my partner. When she tried to defend herself in court, the judge would not hear her out and instead fined her and put her on probation. According to the ACLU, the way this court went about collecting debt endangered people of color and the poor in particularly. Indeed nearly all of the people incarcerated for probation violations were Black, though Black people make up 54% of the county.
At the time, we had no idea the ways his rights were being violated. I remember recounting the story to a former boss who seemed shocked to hear that someone could be put on probation for a traffic ticket. Perhaps that’s why the lawsuit also alleges that the court itself is illegal (It no longer exists today). Evidently the recorder’s court does not have the power to give people fines for traffic tickets as it was supposed to make decisions only on county level ordinances.
While my partner was lucky enough to avoid jail, there were still various consequences for the fine he apparently should have never received. Points were placed on his license, which affected his insurance rates and car note when he purchased a new vehicle. The way current law enforcement can violate people’s rights has lasting effects. The potential for abuse within our current system is one reason why some groups are proposing and practicing alternatives.
Alternative Approaches to Law Enforcement Exist and We Should Embrace Them
In her book Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis explains that imprisonment came about as an alternative to torture and mass incarceration attaches a profit motive to the current penitentiary system. While antiprison abolitionists like Angela Davis have always existed, this particular movement grew in response to the rise of the prison industrial complex. I think it’s important to consider these alternatives because the current system disproportionately affects people of color and the poor.
In her book, Davis proposes a number of law enforcement and prison alternatives:
- The demilitarization of schools
- The revitalization of accessible education for all groups
- The formation of free physical and mental healthcare for all
- The development of a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation
Some places within the U.S. are already practicing alternative approaches to handling offenders, most notably restorative justice. These programs make an effort to humanize offenders, providing reasonable solutions for rehabilitation other than hard labor.
Demilitarization of Schools
My childhood friends and I used to make fun of the schools where students had to go through metal detectors. Our school resource officers were laidback guys who yelled at us to get to class. We didn’t get why other students had to attend schools with guards that looked like they couldn’t decide between being in the NFL or being a Marine.
We didn’t understand schools with armed officers and metal detectors reflected the militarization of schools, which typically targeted students of color. We didn’t get that the alternative school some people would get sent to after breaking the rules was also due to logic that students from “bad areas” needed “zero tolerance,” whenever they messed up. There they maintained a strict schedule and monitoring until they could return to their home campus.
Now that I’m older, I recognize that these particular approaches are where the school-to-prison pipeline begins. However, if we want our students to succeed and make it to college instead of jail, we have to prime them for success with a positive environment rather than treat them like potential offenders.
Chicago is often touted as a barometer of how well laws deal with crimes and this includes a few examples of community organizers changing the narrative about education and incarceration. In 2015 the Chicago Veterans for Peace raised money for a billboard campaign that called for “Education Not Militarization” in public schools. The sooner we all take a stand against this militarization, the sooner were can break the link between schools and prison.
Revitalization of Accessible Education for All Groups
I remember learning about how Malcolm X became educated from his autobiography. While incarcerated, he read the entire dictionary and awakened his thirst for knowledge. Today, educational programs for incarcerated people are either non-existent or underfunded, even though these programs help prevent repeat offenses and place people in the workforce.
Once again, Chicago is an example of where people are attempting to change the narrative. The Liberation Library is a group of volunteers who collect books to deliver to incarcerated youth. They see reading as a means of self-empowerment and I agree. Not only they do they accept volunteers, but also donations of money or books. Chicago Books to Women in Prisonis another program that actually operates nationwide. They take requests from incarcerated women and reach out to volunteers and donors to get the job done. In 2016 they delivered over 3,000 packages including books and journals.
In addition to the lack of education for incarcerated people, those who are formerly incarcerated face many blockades. A number of universities ask whether or not you’ve committed certain crimes when you apply. Financial aid is contingent upon not having run-ins with the law as well. We can’t expect communities affected by mass incarceration to improve as long as we treat imprisonment as a permanent status used to keep people out of the ivory tower.
Free Physical and Mental Healthcare for All
I recently watched a Netflix documentary titled Dogs on the Inside. The film centered on inmates who participated in a program where they trained dogs that would later get adopted. The program had benefits for the inmates too, as it was a way for them to show affection, care and attention to another living being.
I was really impressed with the way the men shed their tough demeanor in the presence of a playful pup. I also thought about how dog training is an excellent skillset as a potential career. The point of pet programs is to recognize that being an inmate does not make you less human. You still need to be able to show affection and care for other living beings, which is understandably hard to do if you’re imprisoned.
An article I read in the The Guardian also indicated that a similar program at a facility in Lima, Ohio helped reduce the number of mental health issues among some of the prisoners there. Mental health access is important and should not only include pets programs, but also access to counselors and medication. These programs should be affordable and centered around improving the well-being of people who are incarcerated.
In addition to mental healthcare access, incarcerated people need access to quality physical healthcare too. For example, we need to take a firm stance against the practice of handcuffing incarcerated women who are giving birth. The Women’s Law Project also advocates for reproductive health women in general including abortion access.
For transgender people, this healthcare must include access to necessary medication, surgery (if desired) and proper accommodations. Case in point, U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning is still being incarcerated at the all-male U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth despite lobbying to be moved to a women’s facility. Being imprisoned shouldn’t mean you aren’t treated as the gender you identify as.
A Justice System Based on Reparation and Reconciliation
I think people are aware the justice system needs to change, but have a hard time figuring out what specific changes need to be. The programs I described above are working within the current system, but the system overall needs a haul. Some places within the U.S. are already practicing alternatives to incarceration, most notably restorative justice. These programs make an effort to humanize offenders, providing reasonable solutions for rehabilitation other than hard labor.
One program that offers an alternative to probation is Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE). Begun in 2004, this program takes a swift approach to reducing drug use and recidivism for substance abusers. Judge Steven Alm who developed the program noticed some people had difficulty staying in touch with their probation officers. Unfortunately, this would lead to a probation violation, which meant that a person would be sent to state prison and inevitably ended up repeat offenders.
Rather than allowing people to get caught in the system in the event of probation violation, this program keeps offenders on track because the judge and probation officers act as a support system. Even though they might receive some jail time for probation violations, this approach allowed the judge to assess the individual situation. The judge takes into account whether or not the person is working, in school, and avoiding the use of illegal substances.
People in this program were less likely to get arrested, skip probation meetings, use drugs or have their probation revoked according to a fact sheet by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Imagine if the people affected by the negligence of the recorder’s court in Dekalb County had been given this opportunity. Then there wouldn’t be a class action lawsuit demanding millions of dollars in repayment for those affected, but that’s none of my business insert Kermit sipping tea meme here.
What We Can Do To Support Alternatives
My partner’s experience with the recorder’s court taught me to be vigilant about how people get lost in the system. We should never assume someone placed under probation or incarceration is being treated fairly. If we aren’t participating in or donating to programs that accomplish the goals described above, we need to at least be more aware of what our current system allows.
Get familiar with how offenses are handled within your county. Be sure your local court has the right to see and try these offenses. Furthermore, make sure that these courts are not practicing anything unconstitutional like jailing people who cannot afford to pay a fine. Lastly, investigate who the judges are and what their record is. If someone is truly representing the law fairly and giving equal justice to all people, their record should speak for itself.
Beyond that we should develop an attitude of empathy for incarcerated persons and advocate for a system that does not treat offenders inhumanely. For the most part, our tax dollars support how these systems are run. We should demand that our money goes to programs that treat our fellow citizens as human beings even when they break the law.