Many people today have climbed on the bandwagon for criminal justice reform. But what does “reform” actually mean? As we come to the end of Black History month, I’d like to pose some hard questions to those who now call themselves reformers.
First, how do you define reform? Do you support those who believe the way to end mass incarceration is by reducing the sentences only of those convicted of non-violent drug offenses—or release them?
Last time I checked, Malcolm X was convicted of a violent crime. Would people like him be outside the bounds of your idea of prison reform? We know folks like Malcolm exist outside of the criminal justice ideas that both Hillary and Bernie propose, according to the “racial justice” tabs on their websites, which describe their brands of prison reform.
Are you following their lead? Do you identify as someone who follows the lead of elected officials and political candidates, or are you a Martin Luther King, Jr. type radical who is willing to push politicians on issues, rather than be pushed?
Do you share President Obama’s sentiments that somehow felons are not attached to families? (See Deport Felons, Not Families). Are you okay with separating certain kinds of families through deportation, while fighting to keep other types of families together? If so, how are you able to differentiate between worthy and unworthy families?
Are you a “reformer” who believes the only reason for reducing the population on New York’s Rikers Island, or similar facilities, is to close it until a better, more exquisite, state-of-the-art prison is built? Or do you believe a closed Rikers Island might actually be an opportunity to re-think the reasons why people end up in places like Rikers Island in the first place. I am hoping the latter is you.
Maybe you’re okay with prisons as a permanent budget item. Or would you support the idea that improving conditions and reducing jail populations in places like Rikers offers a perfect opportunity to push investors to invest in the communities where the majority of Rikers residents come from?
If you agree with the latter, then you’re already ahead of what most self-described “reformers” are willing to accept.
But let’s go further. Are you the kind of reformer who believes that the problem of mass incarceration is not race-specific? Do you think that the movement Black lives is somehow new at its core? Or are you able to recognize the historical connections between “Black is Beautiful,” “Black Power” and “Black Lives Matter?”
Mass criminalization and mass marginalization based on race is deeper problem than mass incarceration, in America. Do you agree?
Are you the type of reformer who believes that the problem with policing is that cops are not trained well enough? Do you stop there? Or maybe you’re the kind of reformer who believes body cameras on cops will stop them from abusing their authority?
Are you the kind of reformer who understands the problem of urban gun violence as “daddies not in the home?” Are you the kind of reformer who sees the answer to community unrest, and community violence, as more police? Or, perhaps you’re the pseudo-progressive reformer who believes police are the only reason for lower crime rates throughout the country, and not the internal capacity of the people in the communities themselves to decide not to commit crime?
Is it too difficult to associate yourself with the rebels of honor we acknowledge in our speeches during Black History Month? Martin was not a “reformer.” Nor was Medgar, nor Malcolm. Huey was not a reformer. Rosa was not a reformer. Neither was Frederick.
Here’s the problem with the term “reformer.” It suggests that our current system is essentially fair, and just needs tinkering. The revisonist history that has mainstreamed Black History Month and re-interpreted the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s through a passive lens cannot and should not be the rubric from which we address the problems of massive criminalization of Black and Brown people.
Imagine. Would our heroes of the past be okay with the “reform” of segregation? Would they be okay with “reforming” slavery? Or the slave trade?
What we should be looking for is the type of change that threatens the comfort zones of the powerful, and directly challenges the injustices that spurred the creation of Black Lives Matter, or Black is Beautiful, or Black Power.
I would like to see a Black Futures Month that requires a transformation of the systemic conditions that have generated the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people in our prison system—and continue to imprison and marginalize Black and Latino people in America even when there are no physical bars.
What kind of reformer are you?
Marlon Peterson, founder of The Precedential Group, a New York-based social justice consulting firm, is a 2015-2017 Soros Justice Fellow and a 2015 Ebony Magazine Power 100 Honoree. He looks forward to comments from readers.