Democracy Behind Bars

Across the nation, people have taken to streets to voice their hurt, anger, and pain and to call for police reform following the murders of George Floyd, Beonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and far too many others at the hands of police. People are rightfully devastated by the ongoing violence against Black communities and  outraged about the failure of our government to protect its citizens. 

Black communities deserve real justice: structural change to eradicate white supremacy, freedom from unjust and targeted policing, and the space and resources to grieve and heal. Now is a time more for action, not just more broken promises and empty words.

Black lives matter and Black people deserve to thrive, not just survive. That is why, in 2018, we put together the Democracy Behind Bars report, which takes an introspective look at every stage of the justice system on our communities. The report highlights how undemocratic policies and well-funded special interests pervert justice and prey on the vulnerable, all while soaking up public funds desperately needed for other programs, like schools, healthcare clinics, and community-led safety projects. The dangerous policies and practices detailed in this report are a sampling – not a complete picture – of the dirty politics of mass criminalization and over-policing. 

The facts are staggering. 38% of Americans – 124 million people – have been stopped by police at least once in the past five years. Either in prison, on probation, or on parole, 6.7 million people live under court-ordered supervision. Millions more people convicted of felonies experience long-term or even permanent effects of their encounters with the criminal justice system through disenfranchisement and housing and employment discrimination stemming from the required disclosure of their past convictions on applications. Mass criminalization and incarceration, often targeted at African-American and Latino communities, disenfranchises and disempowers millions of Americans and undermines the legitimacy of our democracy.

Despite its broad reach, many Americans view our criminal justice system through a distorted lens. Popular understanding of the system follows narratives created by movies and television shows.

Programs like Law and Order tell their stories from the perspective of scrupulous detectives and prosecutors who exact tough justice on deserving criminals. The reality is often starkly different. The television shows typically do not feature scenes of officers arresting people of color for petty crimes only to boost arrest statistics and qualify themselves for promotion and their departments for state and/or federal funding. That is why criminal justice advocates now celebrate the recent cancelling of police shows like Cops and Live PD in the wake of the racial justice and policing reform uprisings. These shows contribute to the dehumanization of African Americans experiencing poverty and the justification of harsh, militarized policing. 

The criminal justice system is neither as simple nor as just as depicted on television. On the contrary, it’s a broken system that is in desperate need of reform.

The system is shaped by many of the same political forces that distort and corrupt other areas of government policy and action, from money in politics, to voter suppression, to ethical breaches. The lobbying influence of and campaign spending by the private prison industry, police unions, the gun lobby, and weapon manufacturers often outweigh the efforts of criminal justice reform and community advocates when it comes to politicians setting criminal justice and policing policies. America’s legacy of white supremacy continues to shape the fight over voting rights and redistricting, from racist voter suppression laws to gerrymandered voting maps that reduce the political power of communities of color. While scandals and abuses of power by politicians are often covered as front-page stories in the media, there is a devastating lack of attention and accountability given to ethics violations in our police departments, jails, prisons, and courthouses. 

Mass incarceration is a fundamental threat to democracy. A society that unjustly criminalizes and imprisons so many people, devastating our families and communities, and disproportionately targeting people of color and those impacted by poverty for policing and punishment, is not a society living up to the ideal that everyone’s voice matters. 

Read the Democracy Behind Bars report to find out what more we can do to ensure that the Justice system works for everyone.