It is well-documented that black Americans, particularly black men, are arrested, charged and incarcerated at disproportionately high rates compared to white Americans. The existence of this racial disparity in the criminal justice system has ripple effects in nearly every other system. For instance, having an incarcerated parent is considered an adverse childhood experience, which has a negative effect on brain development in children as well as on their future health outcomes. People with criminal justice involvement often struggle to find meaningful living wage employment and stable housing after reentry, meaning that the negative effects of their criminal justice involvement are with them for the rest of their lives. Given the devastating impacts of mass incarceration of black men on our communities, what are some policies or solutions that would help alleviate this problem?
Given the devastating impacts of mass incarceration of black men on our communities, what are some policies or solutions that would help alleviate this problem?
Data Collection and Reporting
In researching this issue, one thing came up over and over again; we need more data. While we have basic statistics on individuals who are incarcerated in the state, as well as some demographic data on sex, race and age, we remain unable to drill down into that data in a meaningful way. Advocates emphasize the importance of more consistency in the way that local jurisdictions collect and report data, and more detail in the kinds of data reported by the state. Only when we are able to fully understand the issues in our criminal justice system and to track the effectiveness of certain interventions will we be able to make meaningful progress on criminal justice system reform.
Only when we are able to fully understand the issues in our criminal justice system and to track the effectiveness of certain interventions will we be able to make meaningful progress on criminal justice system reform.
Reclassify drug possession charges
A bill is currently under consideration in the Ohio Senate which would reclassify possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony charge to an unclassified misdemeanor charge. The goal of Senate Bill 3 is to help low-level, non-violent offenders access drug treatment, rather than incarcerating them. While this nonpartisan bill shows promise, it could do more to reduce racial disparities in the system, particularly if it is amended to retroactively reclassify these charges for people who are already incarcerated on low-level drug charges. That is because historically, black people have been disproportionately arrested, convicted and incarcerated for drug charges, compared to their white counterparts. Advocates suggest several ways the bill could be strengthened, which you can read about in this report. Relatedly, House Bill 1, which was recently introduced, would loosen the requirements for individuals to qualify for treatment in lieu of conviction for certain drug-related offenses.
Reforming the bail system would save Ohio communities as much as $67 million according to one estimate.
Bail reform & innovation
Upwards of 17,000 Ohioans are incarcerated in jails around the state each year. Most of them have not been convicted of a crime. They sit in jail, awaiting trial, in many cases because they cannot afford to pay bail. The bail system disproportionately impacts poor black people because they are policed and arrested at higher rates than white people, and are less likely to be able to afford to pay bail. While they await trial, they risk losing employment, losing custody of their children and other life-altering consequences, all before going to trial. In addition to being better for people who are incarcerated, reforming the bail system would save Ohio communities as much as $67 million according to one estimate. There have been talks in Cuyahoga County of reforming the bail system, but progress is slow. In the meantime, activists are looking to address bail in a more grassroots way. One of the winning groups from last year’s Hack Cleveland event is working to develop an app that would connect people in need with a community bail fund, and The Bail Project, an innovative national organization that creates revolving bail funds, is planning to come to Cleveland.
Reduce collateral sanctions
Collateral sanctions are the “legal penalties or disadvantages that accompany an individual’s conviction for a felony or misdemeanor.” Community Solutions has recommended laws that limit collateral sanctions, particularly those that target reductions in healthcare benefits and employment eligibility. Once people have served their sentences, the goal should be for them to reenter their communities to find employment and stability. However, collateral sanctions stick with individuals for years, or even a lifetime. Reducing and eliminating these sanctions would create more opportunities for people to avoid recidivism and recover from the harmful effects of incarceration.
Addressing these racial disparities is complex, and many other organizations are more immersed in this work.
Addressing these racial disparities is complex, and many other organizations are more immersed in this work. If you’re looking for a more in-depth understanding of criminal justice issues in Ohio and many solutions that we could be working toward as a state, check out Blueprint for Smart Justice: Ohio by the ACLU.
This is the fourth blog in a series responding to the infographic report on racial disparities in Cleveland that I authored in December. Go back and read the first blog on infant mortality, the second blog on racial disparities in childhood and the third blog on juvenile justice.
I would like to thank the following people who shared their knowledge and perspectives with me as I researched this piece: Bishara Addison, Towards Employment; Erika Anthony, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress; Crystal Bryant, Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry; Jocelyn Rosnick, ACLU of Ohio