Photo courtesy of Max Bender.
The following conversation was part of the Resilience and Possibility series. To watch the recording, please scroll to the bottom of this post.
On July 20th, criminal justice reform advocates Louis Reed and Erin Haney joined Pachamama Alliance Co-founder Lynne Twist to discuss criminal justice reform and defunding the police. Louis, who is the national organizer for Dream Corps' #cut50 program, shared his ongoing policy work, often drawing on his experience of being formerly incarcerated. Erin, who is the policy director at Reform Alliance, used insights from her work as a public defender to highlight the need to change the narrative around justice and people who are incarcerated.
What’s Possible Now in the Struggle for Racial Justice
Lynne began with a video of Van Jones in which he speaks about the significance of George Floyd’s death. Van states that because so many people had witnessed it, “more common ground” is now emerging among people everywhere. For him, White people’s increasing acknowledgement of racial injustice and the need to address it constitutes a “great awakening where much more is possible.”
Both Louis and Erin built on this idea that those who were previously disconnected to racial justice issues are now engaging in ways they weren’t before. As Louis stated, millions of White people are now asking how to safeguard Black lives and leverage their privileges. He echoed Van’s sentiment that this is a great awakening, one in which racial justice and criminal justice reform have become global conversations. Erin added that people are now seeing the system with clearer eyes because they are no longer looking away.
Defunding the Police
One of the demands of the racial justice movement—and specifically the Movement for Black Lives—is defunding the police. Erin outlined what defunding the police means and how it can make communities safer.
According to Erin, many 9-1-1 calls are related to mental health, which police officers are not trained to address. This is one of many examples in which police officers must respond to incidents that fall outside the scope of their responsibilities and expertise. Defunding the police means instead funding the appropriate resources so that professionals with the relevant expertise can meet the community’s needs.
Erin also made it clear that in many communities, the police do not “protect and serve.” If we only invest in policing systems that disproportionately harm BIPOC and poor communities, then we are failing to invest in our communities so that they’re actually safe for everyone. Not to mention, the current system focuses on punishment, rather than justice. When we conflate the two, brutality and oppression ensue on a systemic level.
The First Step Act
As part of an ongoing effort to reform the federal prison system, #cut50 and its Empathy Network—a coalition of directly impacted advocates and community leaders—worked with lawmakers to pass the First Step Act in 2018. This criminal justice reform bill has improved conditions for people who are incarcerated, such as by prohibiting shackling during childbirth. It has also resulted in the release of over 8,000 people from prison within 18 months.
The First Step Act was the result of a bipartisan effort with support from both sides of the political divide. As Louis put it, the First Step Act demonstrated that with the right heart, passion, commitment, and timing, we can move beyond political gridlock and polarity.
Erin attributed the success of the First Step Act to the fact that people directly impacted had a seat at the table and that the laws reflected their voices and lived experiences. Without this, lawmakers would not have fully understood what it meant to pass these laws, or more importantly, what it meant for people who are incarcerated if they didn’t pass these laws.
Turning Outrage into Outcomes
As Louis spoke about the importance of demonstrating outrage in the face of injustice, he made it clear that converting the outrage into action is critical. He explained that as a Black man who had spent almost 14 years in federal prison, he—like many others—does not have the luxury of staying outraged without converting the outrage into outcomes that make a difference.
He further elaborated on how to convert outrage into outcomes, stating that it looks like leaning into difficult conversations and people standing together. It also means asking ourselves “How do we turn the power of our privilege into purpose for other people?” As Louis stated, we all have privilege—even he as a man who was formerly incarcerated has privilege by virtue of his gender. In order to turn outrage into outcomes, we must each ask ourselves how we can respond to injustice by using our privilege in service of others