Justice Through Empowerment


The following first appeared as a guest post on Facing Addiction's blog, News and Updates:

When I met Greg Williams, he shared with me his personal story and why he started Facing Addiction. He told me how important it was to him to bring together people affected by addiction and have them come out of the shadows of shame so they could leverage their collective political power. If he could empower the “anonymous people” affected by the policies being implemented on their behalf, he said, the narrative around addiction would change. And he told me about all the audacious ideas, concerts, and marches he pulled off (with a ton of help). I recognized in him a kindred spirit and committed to working with him in any way I could.

My name is Cherise and I lead a 40-year-old organization dedicated to bringing pretrial justice to millions of people who are arrested and booked each year into our nation’s jails. These people face a bleak choice: plead guilty to get out, or find the money to post a bond. Most often, they have to contract with and pay a for-profit commercial bail bonding industry, which— incredibly! —holds the keys to their jail cell.

The Pretrial Justice Institute is equally dedicated to bringing fair and transparent due process to the very few people who, when arrested, should stay in jail before their trial for the safety of victims and the community.

Our nation’s jails are full of people who have not been convicted. According to the US Department of Justice, pretrial detainees account for 95 percent of the increase in the U.S. jail population since 2000. And not all of these are people charged with violent offenses. In fact, most are men and women too poor to post bond for low-level, misdemeanor offenses. The Vera Institute of Justice recently calculated the price tag for all this incarceration to be roughly $14 billion a year.

But there is far more than money at stake. The consequences of these large numbers play out tragically in individual lives. While wealthy people (including some who are genuinely dangerous) purchase their freedom by posting bail, poor and working class people—people who are legally entitled to the presumption of innocence and who by law should be receiving the least restrictive release conditions—too often languish in jail for a lack of cash. As a result, they see their lives disrupted. In some cases, they lose their livelihoods. Their families become homeless.

Consider this. Recent research from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation shows that lower-risk people who spend just a few days in jail pretrial are more likely to re-offend after their release than statistically similar people who are not detained pretrial. In other words, the use of pretrial detention for lower-risk people is making us less safe.

And here is where Greg’s and my commitments converge. Often, people who are arrested and unable to post bond are also struggling with addiction. Sometimes, this is part of a co-occurring mental health issue. Jail is almost always the worst place for someone facing addiction. Very few jails are equipped to handle needed medical detox, and deaths in jails are most common in the first few days after booking.

As a nation, we are struggling to come to terms with the damaging consequences of decades of arresting and jailing people. Our justice system uses practices that emphasize punishment and neglect a more holistic focus on physical, mental, and social services. We’ve tried to arrest and jail our way out of problems caused by failures in educational, economic, and health systems. One in three people this country now have an arrest record. This is a crisis of our own making—and the jury is still out on how likely we are to get out of it.

The solutions to this issue may not be easy, but they are common sense:

Reduce the number of people being placed into our nation’s jails when they should be either left alone or diverted to behavioral health systems.
Replace the cash bail system with one based on transparent and validated risk assessment.
Restrict pretrial detention to only those few who really should be detained, following a lawful due process hearing.
Partnerships matter. Working to elevate impacted communities to a place of power and influence is vital. There is power in our numbers, and we can back each other up with bold, audacious and sincere ideas for raising awareness, mobilizing people, and helping policy makers do the right things.

Let’s do this.

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