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Change our priorities and make justice meaningful again

The U.S. approach to crime for the last 20 years has been to punish everyone, not just those guilty of criminal acts. Not only have most states and the federal government imposed unreasonably harsh punishments for often-minor infractions and incarcerated people of color in disproportionate numbers; these policies have drained billions from health care and education that would have benefited everyone. Instead, government has spent the money on building more prisons and funding heavy-handed prison terms that don’t make society safer and don’t make much sense. 

Fortunately, several members of Congress believe enough is enough. They have introduced a bipartisan bill to reclassify as misdemeanors some low-level felonies and eliminate the increased penalties for possession of crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine. The money saved by the RESET Act (Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment), introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), would be reinvested in communities. 

{mosads}The move is especially gratifying for those of us who live in California. Our state in1994 was among the first of more than two dozen states to pass disastrous “three strikes” laws imprisoning people for life without parole who had three felony convictions, often even if the laws broken involved minor acts. 

The impact of such unreasoning laws has been to devastate families and communities, both in our state and nationwide.  They have also eroded faith in the justice system. For example, harsher and longer sentences prevailed for those who used crack cocaine, found more commonly in communities of color. Yet the law treated much more leniently possession of the powdered cocaine used more often by white people. 

So it seems only right that California is now leading the nation in changing such laws.  Sixty percent of voters recently approved a ballot measure that required charging as misdemeanors low-level offenses such as shoplifting or simple drug possession. The millions saved from reduced rates of incarceration are being directed instead towards mental health and drug treatment, school programs, and victim services.  Starting last year, California also eliminated differences in sentencing or parole for possession or dealing in powdered cocaine or crack cocaine.  

Because of these changes, estimates are that the state may save as much as $200 million next year. But we need the RESET act to share with the entire country the savings we all deserve  — and that justice demands.  

The RESET act would also change the federal law that imposes a particular form of injustice on those who are arrested for possession of food containing marijuana. Under this law, prosecutors can charge someone in holding a bag of marijuana-laced brownies as if the entire weight of the baked goods were marijuana, not just a few grams. So if your pot-spiked brownies weigh a pound, you would be charged with possessing a pound of marijuana, and thus be eligible for a much longer prison term. 

Though the RESET Act has not gained much traction as of yet, it represents the possibility of implementing justice reinvestment at the federal level, which inspires hope. Passing the RESET Act could increase reinvestment in communities damaged for decades by mass incarceration and help reset our priorities. 

In 2013, 11 states spent more of their budgets on corrections than on education, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. State corrections spending has grown at a rate of 141 percent from 1986-2013, while state spending on K-12 education has only grown by 69 percent, the report said. 

That money is spent to support 2.4 million people incarcerated nationwide. Because people of color are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession even though they don’t use drugs more often, harsh sentences have had a bigger impact on their families.  

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Forward Together have partnered on a national community-driven report to be released in September that demonstrates the extent of the devastation mass incarceration has wrought on families and formerly incarcerated people. 

What we know to be true is that spending more money on prisons and less money on education has hurt under-resourced communities of color far more than white communities that are usually better off.  True reform would recognize these injustices and help change the status quo. 

The RESET Act can rebuild those communities by using funds effectively. This means that education funds should be spent on restorative justice programs and school counselors, instead of increasing the number of truancy cops. And instead of using funds to create mental health institutions run by law enforcement, we should direct those savings towards community-based organizations that provide therapy and treatment.  

By ensuring that savings from sentencing reforms go towards rebuilding communities of color, bills like the RESET Act may finally restore faith in justice that is centered on dignity, equality, and power for all communities.

Norris is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and is a 2015 Opportunity Agenda fellow.


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