There comes a time in every society when it must face its shadow side — and deal with it. Societies have myths, legends, and superheroes that lay the foundations for national identity, reinforce beliefs about the self and the other, and shape nations’ collective memory. They exist to make us feel good about ourselves, but as a result, they lie to us and distort collective memory.
As prophets did in the days of abolition, the anti-lynching movement, and the Civil Rights movement, modern-day leaders, like Michelle Alexander, have traversed the country shining light on the myth of equal justice in our justice system.
And on Tuesday, the unlikely duo of Sens. Cory Booker (D – N.J.) and Rand Paul (R – Ky.) joined together to address this myth by introducing the REDEEM Act.
“I will work with anyone, from any party, to make a difference for the people of New Jersey, and this bipartisan legislation does just that,” Booker said in a news release. “The REDEEM Act will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders reoffend.”
The measure aims to cut recidivism rates by helping restore people who serve time to right relationship with their communities upon return. REDEEM would redirect minors away from adult courts and into the juvenile court system, automatically seal or expunge juvenile records upon release, and create a path for adults to have their records sealed upon release. The measure would also restore access to SNAP and welfare for low-level non-violent offenders upon release.
“Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed …,” Paul said in the news release.
From slavery to peonage to Jim Crow to the drug wars and “tough on crime,” the shadow side of our society has repeated the same pattern of confinement and control. Thus, this partnership across the aisle signals a move long in the making: a shifting tide toward a common goal. To illustrate the point, here is a closer look at the shadow side of our existing system:
- The U.S has 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned people, but only 5 percent of its population.
- From 1980 to 2010 incarceration rates in the U.S. have increased from 500,000 inmates in jail and prison to more than 2.2 million.
- From 1980 to 2011, the “War on Drugs” triggered massive increases in the U.S. prison population from 41,000 drug offenders to half a million.
- For-profit prison companies often demand around 90 percent occupancy from the states that contract with them.
- Two of the nation’s major private prison companies, CCA and Geo Group, have helped shape policies that favor mandatory minimum sentences.
- African Americans make up 45 percent prison for drug violations, but only represent 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at the same rates as people of other races.
- The likelihood that a black man will be imprisoned in his lifetime is 1 in 3. For Latino men it is 1 in 6. For white men it is 1 in 17.