In face of violent crime and COVID trauma, nation can't fall into overincarceration trap

·4 min read

The nation's dual crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and the recently reported rise in violent crime – aren't unrelated. America experienced a great shock, and jails stand ready to fill up with those who fall through the cracks.

We have been here before. The crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s was a different type of public health crisis that also led to increases in crime. At the time, America gave in to racism and mass incarceration instead of grappling with the complexity of the problem and designing meaningful interventions. Today, we face a similar decision. In the face of collective trauma, do we respond with the same blunt instruments of jails and prisons? Or do we come together to overcome fear and create real solutions?

Politicians blaming criminal justice reform efforts for rising violence are exploiting tragedy for political gain. Bail reform has become a favorite target even though there is no evidence to support the claim linking it to higher crime. Fearmongering might win elections, but it’s not going to give us the solutions we desperately need.

If history has taught us anything, it is that we can’t jail our way out of social crises. Incarceration is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach that is unsustainable and morally bankrupt. It devastates low-income people, particularly in Black and brown communities, while taking away resources from education, health care and other investments that can actually address the root causes of crime. According to a study that analyzed the costs of incarceration, “If one were to exclude the cost of jail, the aggregate burden of incarceration would still exceed $500 billion annually."

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As a public policy, this costly approach is like throwing a boomerang and hoping it goes away. The vast majority of incarcerated people return to society sooner or later while the conditions that sent them into the criminal legal system in the first place remain largely unchanged if not worse. The impact of incarceration extends beyond the individual, as children grow up without a parent, and families lose emotional and financial stability.

There is no question that efforts to reform the criminal legal system, including bail policies, must recognize the seriousness of the violence epidemic and offer viable alternatives for addressing it.

Organizations like Cure Violence, Common Justice and the new Freedom Community Center are already doing this – putting new approaches to address violence into practice. They take community-based approaches to meaningfully prevent and address harm in ways that foster accountability, healing and safety. Cure Violence treats violence as a health issue, and Common Justice and the Freedom Community Center use survivor-centered responses to interrupt violence at its root.

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I am part of that movement. My organization, The Bail Project, is also working to shift the pretrial lens from preventative detention through the use of cash bail, to identifying unmet needs that might be driving a person into contact with the system in the first place.

Additionally, groups of criminal justice experts, like the Council on Criminal Justice, continue to explore tactics that can reduce violence and practical applications for local decision-makers.

These approaches have one thing in common: They seek to disrupt the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and incarceration. They will not work in all cases, but they stand a better chance than the carceral approach, a revolving door that sweeps up millions of Americans every year and sends them back worse off.

People who have been victims of violence are also more likely to carry out violence. Violence spreads like a disease. Rising rates of gun violence in particular are a wake-up call that we need to tackle this issue in a meaningful way, instead of resorting to the knee-jerk reactions and failed policies of the past.

Again, if mass incarceration worked, it would have worked already. We have one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, and clearly we’re no safer as a result. It is time to focus on public health-based approaches to violence prevention and intervention.

It is hard to abandon what is familiar in times of anxiety and pain. But what is familiar here – jails and prisons – does not work. Worse, it is destroying us. Nearly 1 in 2 adults in the United States has seen an immediate family member go to jail or prison for at least one night. We are no safer. The path to change begins with recognizing that the problem of violence is systemic, not individual. We must approach it like the public health crisis that it is.

Robin Steinberg is the founder and CEO of The Bail Project and a former public defender.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Prison won't fix poverty, social issues that lead to cycle of violence

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