Credit for criminal justice reform where credit is due

As prison activists have watched the discourse over reform unfold over the last weeks and months we’ve all echoed a similar refrain: When you have even the likes of Rand Paul coming out in favor of reform, you know that the system’s broken. But while the temptation is great to point to this union across the aisle as potentially acting as the turning point in policy changes decades in the making, it’s critical to remember that last point—that people have been fighting for these changes for decades. A fellow anti-recidivism activist, Dr. Niaz Kasravi, is asking us to do just that.

While her piece praises current efforts push us ever closer to meaningful change in this country’s criminal justice system, it asks us to focus on the achievements of those who have been working for reform for the past thirty years, and not just recent months. It further asks us to remember that this isn’t strictly an issue of dollars and cents, as more conservative politicians assert.

It’s a frustration I often feel myself when entering into discussions with people who are focussed on the punitive aspects of imprisonment. In order to gain traction you have to focus strictly on the economic arguments and the old cost-effectiveness imperative. It’s particularly frustrating in light of the seeming plague of deaths of minorities and the poor at the hands of law enforcement.

The impacts of a broken criminal justice system have been borne disproportionately by these groups. And while Obama appropriately used the NAACP meeting last monthly to highlight these inequities (particularly notable for his compassionate comments regarding Trayvon Martin), the focus of those uniting with him on the right has been almost entirely on issues of fiscal responsibility.

And while I hope that this final year of his administration—and those that follow—will see a change in the tide of how the world views the concepts of imprisonment and rehabilitation, we need to remember the names and lives of those who have sacrificed to see such moments come to pass. While we all want these events to represent a seminal moment in the history of prison reform, if we’re focusing only on the economics of the matters we are missing out on the most important dimension of the debates: the human one. When our humanity is taken out of the equation, we forget to ask the most fundamental questions of all, the ones which guide us in working towards realizing a vision of a common future with justness and equity for all.