It’s time for my annual end-of-the-year criminal justice reform wish list. This year I’m including specific action steps you can take, and I’m highlighting organizations that you might be interested in supporting. Together, we can promote a better vision of what justice could be in 2022.
- Nearly half a million people are held in jail before trial, many of whom are trapped behind bars simply because they are too poor to pay bail. Even though people are presumed innocent before trial, they are trapped in jails by poverty. The situation is so dire that innocent people may choose to plead guilty simply to go home. And then, of course, there is the ongoing threat of COVID spread in our overcrowded jails. If you want to change our pre-trial detention system, you can lobby your state legislature to reform bail policy (like they did in my home state of New Jersey). Or you can support bail funds like the Bail Project or the National Bail Out Collective that help pay bail for poor people in need.
- If you’ve been following the border crisis, you may know that Texas Governor Greg Abbott implemented Operation Lone Star (OLS). Under OLS, Texas is arresting migrants from criminal trespass and sending them to prison where they wait months to resolve their non-violent misdemeanor trespass cases because they cannot afford to post bond. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is leading the fight to get migrants out of these prisons. (Full disclosure, my very dear friend Robert Doggett is the executive director of TRLA… so while I may be biased, I can also vouch for the high quality of services TRLA provides). Donate to TRLA today, and support their frontline fight against the unjust arrests of migrants.
- Twenty-seven states and the federal government still allow for the use of the death penalty. The good news is that in 2021, only five states and the federal government (as part of Trump’s January killing spree) carried out any executions this year at all. The death penalty is racist, targets the poor, costs more than any other punishment, and runs the risk of killing the innocent. If you think the death penalty is wrong, contact President Biden and remind him of his promise to abolish the federal death penalty. Or support national organizations like Death Penalty Action or the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty that are leading the fight to end the death penalty once and for all.
- Vote. Vote with an eye to electing politicians who support progressive criminal justice reform agendas, like the state legislators in Colorado and New Mexico who passed laws to change “qualified immunity” standards for police accountability. Vote with an eye to electing progressive prosecutors in your local elections. Vote to elect judges who understand that “tough on crime” is not the best or only way to achieve justice. If you can, support these candidates with funding or with your time. And support organizations that help protect the right to vote, like the Brennan Center or the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. Far too many people — many of whom are black and brown– have been disenfranchised in ways that stack the deck against meaningful change. If we band together to elect public officials who care about reform, justice will prevail every time.
- Support innocence organizations like the Innocence Project or New Jersey’s own Centurion Ministries who are in the trenches fighting for innocent people who have been wrongly convicted. These cases highlight just how broken our criminal legal system is — from inadequate funding for defense, to police and prosecutors who engage in misconduct with no accountability, to outdated forensic science. Let’s take that knowledge and use it to promote change. Because no innocent person should spend another night in prison.
- A final thought. The United States is the world’s largest jailer. We lock people behind bars for shockingly long sentences, in stunningly deplorable conditions, and never think twice about the harm we cause. Being this punitive does not make us safer. But it does cause tremendous harm to those who are impacted by incarceration, including many people who are poor and from communities of color. If the “true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned,” then we are failing. Support policies and organizations that work to reduce mass incarceration.
Here’s to 2022! May it be a year of action, accountability, and reform.