American democracy is a bold experiment, but it can’t be left to regulate itself. That’s the mindset OZY’s own Carlos Watson shares today with a promise to help #ResetAmerica, and it’s one that is sorely needed after a first presidential debate that could only be described as exasperating. While keeping a tradition of fair, multipartisan journalism, our goal is to also espouse the moral clarity to call for specific solutions to the problems plaguing society. Today, we explore the realities of an unequal justice system and what can be done about it, highlighted by a sit-down with eloquent Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and an explosive A&E special pairing Watson with the rapper Ludacris to take an unvarnished dive into the prisons themselves. We hope you will join us on this journey.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Politics Reporter
1. Where Things Stand
The number of people in federal prisons is falling thanks in part to the First Step Act, which President Donald Trump passed with Democrats in Congress following on the pivotal work of a bourbon-loving Kentucky conservative and a Republican ex-con turned reform advocate. Forty-four states have reduced inmate counts since their peaks, but advocates argue that the rate of decline has been slow to reverse “nearly four decades of aggressive imprisonment growth” that had multiplied the national prison population size by seven from 1972 to 2009. For half the country, the reduction was marginal — less than 10 percent off their peak — while six states (Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas and Oregon) actually had their highest prison population ever in 2018.
2. When Will Their Debts to Society Be Paid?
Former felons are being punished despite having served their time. Even though recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states, many Americans remain incarcerated for the crime of selling large amounts of pot — the same thing entrepreneurs are now making millions of dollars from legally. In fact, most states go a step further by prohibiting former felons from being in the marijuana business. Meanwhile, in 21 states, ex-convicts lose the right to vote for a time after being released from jail. In Florida, Republicans passed a law restricting former felons from voting until they paid state fees. But when Mike Bloomberg recently contributed $16 million to help ex-convicts pay some of those fines, the GOP accused him of criminal election interference, raising the question by critics: Is the law about seeking justice or about suppressing the vote?
Too often, politics ignores the very voices most affected by policy. That’s why, tonight, A&E Networks is bringing viewers Voices Magnified: Locked Up in America, a special that examines the flaws of the criminal justice system and how they can be fixed. Helmed by actor and artist Ludcaris and Carlos Watson, OZY editor-in-chief and Emmy Award–winning journalist, and featuring interviews with prisoners, former convicts, activists and experts, the special airs at 10 p.m. EST.
Art Acevedo is not your usual police chief. The Cuban-born top cop in Houston has taken a strong stand in favor of the George Floyd protests and racial justice reforms. Learn about his journey on today’s episode of The Carlos Watson Show, and hear his prescriptions for removing the “bushels of bad apples” who reside in today’s police departments. It means cracking down not just on illegal acts, Acevedo says, but “lawful but awful” policing.
Last year, Pennsylvania passed the first “clean state law,” influenced by the decadeslong work of the “godmother” of criminal record reform, Sharon Dietrich. It was quickly followed by Utah, with Michigan, California and Colorado considering their own versions. The laws aim to automatically seal the records of millions of low-level criminal cases, a tacit acknowledgment that roughly 1 in 3 Americans have criminal records and often struggle to find employment because of it.
Two companies control 70 percent of the American prison communications market, leading to high charges for inmates to make calls to their loved ones. A 15-minute call from a local jail costs an average of $5.74. The duopoly is allowed to continue in part because states and localities split revenue from those charges. A new nonprofit, Ameelio, aims to bring free voice and video calls to the incarcerated as an alternative.
The pinging just won’t stop. Working from home was supposed to be easy, but now you can never escape the notifications, emails and Slacks. In short, you have no work-life balance. Isn’t it time to rethink work and tip the scale in your favor? Tomorrow Smartsheet launches its free, virtual ENGAGE 2020 event, where you can witness the launch of the world’s first platform for dynamic work. Let’s build the future of work we actually enjoy.
Some really do want to abolish the police force, with hopes for resetting an institution that began with Southern slave patrols and is rife with abuse today. Proponents argue that doing so might lead to less crime — Camden, New Jersey, for example, saw a 25 percent drop in violent crime after its force was disbanded — and significant savings. Others want to decrease spending on cops so that they can increase investment in mental health counselors, social workers and education. As the Vera Institute of Justice notes, 80 percent of the 10 million police arrests in America each year are for minor offenses, yet when it comes to violent arrests, authorities are only able to make arrests about 5 percent of the time. If all the money going into the police is not lowering the crime rate, why not use it elsewhere?
2. Is Defunding Losing Steam?
Some Minneapolis City Council members are already regretting their pledge to defund the police, saying it “created confusion in the community,” while struggling to define what they meant by their promises. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll this summer showed that 61 percent of Black Americans want to maintain the same amount of police presence in their communities. In fact, more people said they wanted more policing (20 percent) than less (19 percent), although they also showed less trust in police forces, suggesting that they would like to see reformation, not dismantlement.
3. Why Change Has Stalled
The political and social strength of police unions cannot be overstated. Measures to encourage accountability have routinely been scrapped, in part due to multiple layers of contractual and legislative protections. Purge clauses force departments to remove records of disciplinary actions against officers within just a few years, while civilian review boards routinely have their reform suggestions challenged by police unions and overturned in court. Police unions differ from the broader labor movement, often siding with laws that protect business owners and private property over disadvantaged groups. At least three national police unions endorsed Donald Trump in 2016 — in one poll, 84 percent of officers also said they planned to vote for him that November — while every other labor union that made an endorsement chose Hillary Clinton. The same three police unions have endorsed the president again in 2020.
The Minneapolis City Council famously spent $4,500 a day on private security after promising to defund, while the Minneapolis Board of Education pledged to get officers out of city schools only to hire “public safety support specialists” with responsibilities that included breaking up fights. Their example points to a larger trend nationally, in which governments quickly turn to private security officers — who may be better trained than police officers but face even less public scrutiny — to fill in the void. The calls for dismantling the police have also coincided with an increase in gun purchases, particularly among African Americans, and some scholars worry that moving too quickly will lead to an increase in violent crime and victimization (New York City, for example, saw shootings jump 166 percent in August).
In San Francisco, the arrest of a 73-year-old deaf woman with dementia has led police to develop their first policy for interacting with hard-of-hearing individuals. Meanwhile, in February, law enforcement in Amherst, Massachusetts, received a mobile app to connect them with an ASL interpreter when they encounter a deaf person, while the St. Paul, Minnesota, City Council recently changed its policy to provide more ASL interpreters to the public.
While the pandemic is accelerating the use of online classes, students from low-income families — and disproportionately students of color — have fewer digital tools at their disposal. A quarter of poor students don’t have a laptop or desktop computer, compared with just 8 percent of their peers from more financially stable families. Because public schools in the U.S. are largely funded by local property taxes, poorer neighborhoods already have fewer resources and stretched budgets and have struggled to adjust to the costs of setting up remote-learning courses. There is also an urban-rural divide for quality internet access, exacerbated by squabbles between regions that want to provide internet as a public utility and private companies that want to protect their monopolies on service.
Students of color are disproportionately opting for remote learning over in-person instruction, reflecting in part a distrust among people of color that school districts can keep their children safe. McKinsey & Co. projected that if students don’t return to physical classrooms until January 2021, Black students may experience at least 10 months of learning loss, and Latino students, nine months.
Since white families are still sending their kids to school at higher rates, persistent achievement gaps could balloon even further. That could make reaching higher levels of education more difficult, as standardized test scores often play a role in college acceptance. And because educational achievement often correlates with income and wealth, it could also widen financial disparities: Americans with an advanced degree are 50 times more likely to become millionaires than those without a high school diploma, according to one study.
4. Seeking Solutions
In Silicon Valley, ed-tech company Encantos is revolutionizing at-home bilingual education, while venture firm Reach Capital has invested in decreasing the education achievement gap through platforms to help teachers better manage their classrooms, software for English language learners and chatbots that improve the transition from high school to college, among other things. Broadly speaking, schools teaching students of color will remain underfunded until the way we fund them changes. Right now, about 36 percent of K-12 funding comes from local property taxes, ensuring that poorer districts will continue to struggle, a reality then-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris acknowledged in May 2019. Last year, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia proposed the Rebuild America’s Schools Act to spend $100 billion over 10 years on updating an ailing education system. But the bill has stalled in Congress since being introduced.
The French press called Assa Traoré “the Antigone of France,” after the 35-year-old special education teacher became a leader in the justice reform movement following the death of her younger brother, Adama, during a police chase in July 2016. Changes are underway, including a 2018 bill that promises to find alternatives, such as electronic monitoring, to replace sentences under a month, and to push all civil and criminal proceedings online by 2020, a measure that advocates say could improve compliance and reduce recidivism.
It’s a relatively homogenous, sparsely populated country, but its lessons could apply globally. Finland’s police cadets train for three years before joining the force, compared with a maximum of 36 weeks in America. And cops in Finland have to seek permission from superiors before shooting, whenever possible. The result? Finns trust their police to secure law and order more than inhabitants of any other country — even though police collectively shoot their firearms only 10 times a year on average.
In 2012, the Central American nation had the worst homicide rate in the world — more than twice the rate of the next-worst nation, Belize. Since then, no country in the world has cut its murder rate as much as Honduras has. And while its homicide rates are still high — 38 in every 100,000, still in the top five globally — Honduras’ success holds lessons for others in the region. Law enforcement agencies have focused on tackling specific crimes, such as extortion, that they found often led to murder, and they’ve also targeted large criminal gangs. But they’ve also looked within, introducing sweeping police reforms and dismissing nearly 5,000 officers.
This nation had a terrible reputation for corruption until 2003, when it abolished its entire police force and rebuilt it from the ground up, with help from the EU, the U.N. and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Police salaries were raised from about $50 a month to $200 a month — but the message was clear: Corrupt officers would be fired. It’s an approach that Camden, New Jersey, followed in 2012, similarly dissolving its police force and re-creating it. Georgia has also built glass-walled police stations, so officers know they can be seen from the outside.
Beena Chintalapuri has slashed recidivism rates in some Indian prisons from 80 percent to 1 percent by introducing inmates to cognitive behavioral therapy and launching India’s first master’s program in psychology for the incarcerated. The theory is that inmates can help one another battle their demons and emerge from prison having dealt with some of the scars that landed them there in the first place.
From ministers convicted of corruption sentenced to sweep hospital floors to reckless drivers ordered to help maintain gardens, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are increasingly turning to sentences that don’t include locking people up for non-life-threatening crimes. Noncustodial sanctions in Kenya exploded from 43,145 in 2004 to 366,617 in 2015. The number of community service orders imposed by Tanzanian courts doubled from 748 in 2011 to 1,498 in 2015. And in Uganda, 36,556 community service orders since 2001 have helped the government save more than $4.5 million. It’s a strategy born in part out of necessity — the region has overcrowded prisons. But then, so does America.