Last week, Hillary Clinton presented a plan to end “the era of mass incarceration” in America. Her plan was strong on rhetoric, but weak on the changes in policy and practice needed to actually stop over-incarceration.
2016 Presidential hopefuls who want to address incarceration have to tackle problems at the pretrial stage, or beginning, of the criminal justice process: arrests, unnecessary pretrial detention and pretrial release decisions based on how much money an arrestee has.
Criminal justice reform has an opportunity to become the next big bipartisan push, and it is long overdue. But if we want to truly end the era of mass incarceration, we have to do more than require body cameras on police officers across the country, and more than simply letting low-level offenders out of prison.
Body cameras won’t stop what happened in Ferguson, where 93% of arrests are of African American residents, most for offenses like loud music, parking tickets, or loitering. These arrests might not get a lot of scrutiny, but in reality they represent the routine and dismissive way we treat the most minor of offenses, making us the world’s largest incarcerator. Right now, officers arrest more than twice as many people for nonviolent drug crimes than violent crimes–these numbers don’t even include arrests for debt, loitering, or other low-level charges that are highly prevalent in communities of color.
Nationwide, law enforcement made more than 11 million arrests in 2013, the last year for which we have data.
Those arrests matter. As we are seeing in Baltimore this month, once arrested there is no telling when a person might get out, even if they are innocent.
Today, and on any given day, 3 in 5 people behind bars in jail have not been convicted. To know why they are there, look at the bond amounts being set in Baltimore last week, which highlight the problem: a father found with tennis shoes with a price tag still on with bond set at $100,000 dollars. An 18 year-old accused of vandalism with bond set at $500,000.
When you use money to determine who stays behind bars, people who pose no risk to the community end up stuck simply because they can’t afford bond.
The next part of the process is where things get truly messy. Compared to defendants who are released before trial, defendants held in jail pretrial are four times more likely to be sentenced to more jail time with sentences three times as long, and are three times as likely to be sent to prison with sentences twice as long, according to the Arnold Foundation’s latest research.
Put simply: just being held pretrial leads to worse outcomes for individuals and the community. In fact, just two to three days behind bars makes the lowest-risk defendants 40% more likely to commit a crime in the future than those let free.
Once again, Baltimore could show us why: many of the dozens of people held pretrial after being arrested while protesting, without chance of release have argued they will lose their jobs. A lost job can mean lost housing, which can mean committing a crime could simply be about survival.
Millions of Americans are booked into our jails every year, many of whom will be trapped in this cycle that has created America’s incarceration crisis.
We simply cannot overlook the first domino in the mass incarceration line. Arresting people, predominantly African Americans and Latinos, is what has gotten us into this mess, and we cannot hope to change things until we stop doing it so often.
If we don’t want people in jail for playing loud music, smoking a joint, missing a parking ticket, or being in debt, we have to stop arresting them for it.
Pretrial decisions like these have formed a pipeline to mass incarceration, and any serious candidate for the Presidency must commit to reducing arrests and decreasing the number of people in America’s jails if they want to put a real dent in incarceration numbers.
If Hillary Clinton, or other candidates for President in 2016, want to be bold about ending the era of mass incarceration, they have to start by looking at the front end, pretrial stage of the cycle.
Cherise Fanno Burdeen is Executive Director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a national organization working to advance safe, fair, and effective pretrial justice that honors and protects all people.