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Voices that are pushing the envelope – best commentary of 2017

A few of our favorite examples of writing that pushed the envelope and shined light on some of the most pressing issues for criminal justice reform today.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 27, 2017

This year, we were pleased to see more writers, researchers, and advocates take a stand against mass incarceration. Here are some of our favorite examples of writing that pushed the envelope and shined light on some of the most pressing issues for criminal justice reform today:

  • The price of justice doesn’t cover the bills
    By Jon Wool
    USA Today
    April 21, 2017

    New Orleans, called by its mayor the “most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated country in the world,” is finally trying to reduce its jail population. In this column, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans explains how jail incarceration on this scale is driven by the perverse incentives of state agencies – including courts – to squeeze money out of the city’s disproportionately Black and poor defendants through money bail and conviction fines and fees. New Orleans is not alone in this practice, but it perfectly illustrates the deep dysfunction and injustice caused by funding courts through the fines and fees they impose on society’s most disadvantaged.

  • When a Computer Program Keeps You in Jail
    By Rebecca Wexler
    New York Times
    June 13, 2017

    In an op-ed that will keep you up at night, Rebecca Wexler explains what happens when automated technologies become a widely accepted but unaccountable part of the criminal justice process. “At every stage – from policing to investigations to bail, evidence, sentencing and parole – computer systems play a role”, but the privately owned, for-profit companies behind these systems are refusing to explain how their products work when they produce questionable outcomes, claiming “trade secret” privilege. When key criminal justice decisions are based on black box algorithms, and private interests are protected above due process, the legitimacy of the system is at stake.

  • When Prisoners Are a “Revenue Opportunity”
    By Brian Alexander
    The Atlantic
    August 10, 2017

    Brian Alexander of The Atlantic breaks down all of the problems with the “video visitation” contracts that are quietly replacing in-person visits in local jails across the country. Connecting the dots between the low-quality video chats, the elimination of in-person visits, administrative hurdles to discourage free on-site calls, hidden fees, “bundled” video and phone services, and commissions paid to counties, this piece offers a complete picture of the exploitative nature of “video visitation” for the uninitiated. Going beyond the basics, however, Alexander points to the growing interest of private equity firms in prison and jail telecommunications as further evidence that the system of mass incarceration has created a lucrative market to be exploited.

  • My Brother, the Violent Offender
    By Josie Duffy Rice
    Slate
    August 14, 2017

    Josie Duffy Rice’s story of her brother, who struggles with the stigma of a violent felony conviction, gives real-life context to her deeper discussion of one of the most pressing questions for criminal justice reformers today: How should our society define – and respond to – violence? Furthermore, how can we help people with violent convictions succeed, instead of trapping them in a cycle of incarceration and poverty? Given that more than half of the people in state prisons are incarcerated for violent offenses, Rice reminds us, we can’t radically decarcerate without rethinking violence.

  • I Can’t Visit My Sons in Prison Because I Have Unpaid Traffic Tickets
    by Joyce Davis as told to Eli Hager
    The Marshall Project
    September 14, 2017

    Joyce Davis, a grandmother with cancer living on a fixed income, has no criminal record but does have $1,485 in tickets she can’t afford to pay. In this heartbreaking narrative for The Marshall Project’s “Life Inside” series, she questions why that was cause for the Michigan Department of Corrections to refuse her request to visit her sons in prison. Her story adds a disturbing coda to the long list of ways fines and fees trap poor defendants: to induce payment, the state will even keep your children from you if it can.

  • We are Reclaiming Chicago One Corner at a Time
    By Tamar Manasseh
    New York Times
    October 22, 2017

    In this op-ed, Tamar Manasseh offers a straightforward solution to gang violence, and it’s not what the Trump administration has in mind: shift resources to neighborhoods for job training, better schools, safe spaces for kids, and community programs. She’s seen it work in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, where her community organization has supervised and fed kids for three years and watched as violent crime fell and student performance improved. Manasseh reminds us that public safety doesn’t require the knee-jerk responses of more police and harsher punishments, but rather giving communities the resources they need to take care of themselves.

Wendy Sawyer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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