Tuesday, June 21, 2011

what I'm learning

This past year has made me conversant in a number of new subjects. Social welfare programs in the US. Things tourists do that annoy New Yorkers. Taxes. Taxes in Spanish. The subway system.

One thing I got an education in that I wasn't expecting: criminal justice in the US.

A year ago, I couldn't have told you with certainty which was more serious, a felony or a misdemeanor. I didn't know the difference between jail and prison. I'd never seen a stop-and-frisk. I wouldn't have believed that a person's right to vote could be taken away for life if they were convicted of a crime. I couldn't have distinguished parole from probation. I wouldn't have understood the signficance of "felony-friendly" employers.

I've learned all this on the job, from men who launch into a speeches trying to minimize their felonies as soon as they sit down to be screened for our services. From calling clients to follow up on their benefits applications only to be told that they are federal inmates and can't receive personal communication. From mothers, wives, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends who can't include everyone in their household on their food stamps cases because felons and the families that take them in can be kicked out of public housing.

But I hadn't put the dots together until a sermon I heard a few months ago. The pastor used evidence from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to talk about the unjust laws, practices and attitudes that have brought us to the point where one in three black men in the US is under the control of the criminal justice system. Alexander argues that changes in the criminal justice system in the last thirty years, particularly the War on Drugs have created a caste system in the mold of slavery and Jim Crow. Black men are no more likely to break drug laws than their white counterparts, yet they are stopped, searched, charged, and convicted at exponentially higher rates and their sentences are usually much harsher.

She describes not only the criminal justice system, but also what happens to those released from prison with felonies. The can be denied housing, jobs, public benefits, and the right to vote (among other things). I'd estimate that more than half of my male clients check "yes" next to the question "Have you been convicted of a crime". This is fair game on any job application, and for many of them it makes finding employment nearly impossible. Indeed, some of the only "felony-friendly" employment options are also some of the most dangerous jobs available - work in construction, commercial driving (with a focus on transporting hazardous materials) and environmental clean-up (involving removal of toxic materials like asbestos). It's no coincidence that these careers are a focus for my organization. But all the job placement in the world doesn't touch the injustice of the system.

The pastor ended that sermon with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, and with the spiritual "Let My People Go".

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go!

Read the book if you can. If you can't, at least read the sermon.

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