As we celebrate the indelible contributions Black Americans have made to American life, we must acknowledge that we’re living through a troubling resurgence of inflammatory and counterproductive criminal justice rhetoric.
Black Americans well understand where this kind of rhetoric can lead. And we know who’s most likely to suffer the consequences of it. We’re still incarcerated at much higher rates than our white counterparts, with effects that ripple through communities and families around the country.
This recent turn in the discourse is both predictable and unhelpful—especially because we know better solutions exist. We don’t have to choose between keeping our communities safe, preserving families, and addressing our nation’s staggering incarceration rate. We can do all three. In fact, we already know a big part of the solution: probation and parole reform.
How did the United States end up as the most incarcerated nation on Earth? By sending a lot of people to prison and keeping them there for a long time. In the case of our probation and parole systems, we’re even sending people back to prison after they’ve been released. Nationwide, 42 percent of all prison admissions are due to supervision violations, and locking people up for these violations costs taxpayers billions of dollars.
We know that these systems affect Black America disproportionately, with Black people more than twice as likely to be on probation and nearly four times as likely to be on parole as their white counterparts.
Many Americans were awakened to the injustices of the system after Meek Mill got sent back to prison for riding a dirtbike. At REFORM Alliance, we’re working every day to change this broken system. We’ve helped pass 16 pieces of legislation in 10 states, creating pathways for 650,000 people to exit the system.
Proponents of strict probation and parole policies suggest that supervision violations are necessary to protect public safety. But rather than make communities safer, these antiquated policies criminalize poverty and drive racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Consider North Carolina’s reduction-in-incarceration punishments for supervision violations. According to an assessment by the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, incarceration resulting from technical violations fell dramatically. Moreover, North Carolina’s reforms helped eliminate the racial gap in incarceration for technical violations and allowed thousands of Black Americans to stay in their communities and rebuild their lives.
The numbers, while important, don’t tell the whole story. How can you quantify the value of having mom and dad back at the dinner table, of having your friend back in the neighborhood, of having all your cousins at the family reunion?
I hear stories like these every day. I meet Black men and women whose lives have been transformed by those most precious things: a second chance, and a little dignity. These people remind me that the Black American experience, as James Baldwin wrote, “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Despite the extreme rhetoric, I am filled with hope this Black History Month. We can draw strength from these stories, empowered to walk forward, in the words of the civil rights pioneer James Weldon Johnson, “full of the faith that our dark past has taught us…full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
Let’s resist the tendency to entertain false choices, realizing that rigid ideologies aren’t the answer. Let’s reject fear tactics wherever they’re deployed, and instead embrace practical, humane reforms. We don’t face a choice between justice and safety. Indeed, we can’t have one without the other.
Robert Rooks is CEO of REFORM Alliance, a national organization dedicated to probation and parole reform. He is the father of three sons.