Perceptions of Criminal Justice Reform

Heidi Sytsema, right, introduced us to Heather Garretson, a local attorney who is working on criminal justice reform. Heather – by the way, the daughter of former Rotarian Sherry Albertie Becker – led us through a brief, but powerful, PowerPoint presentation on the startling statistics of incarceration, both in the world and locally here in Michigan.
The United States is a world leader in rates of incarcerated persons, second only to Russia. Heather indicated that 30% of Americans have a criminal record and believes that number is actually higher now. She stated that incarceration intersects with many other areas of interest; such as poverty, education, substance use, employment, housing and family systems. It is estimated that 1 in 28 children in the United States has a parent that is currently incarcerated. It costs tax payers somewhere between $28,000 to $35,000 per year to house an inmate; and pointed out that attending the University of Michigan or Michigan State is cheaper than housing a person in corrections each year. In fact, the State of Michigan’s budget for the Department of Corrections has grown from 3% in the 1988 to over 21% in 2018.
Heather led the discussion with some very interesting and sobering statistics on racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Local jails (United States) house 646,000 inmates who have not yet been convicted of a crim. These are primarily individuals who cannot afford to post bond due to issues of poverty. Heather indicated that 1 in 106 white males, 1 in 36 Hispanic males, and 1 in 15 African American males (18 years and older) will enter the criminal justice system at some point. If rates of incarceration remain on par with current rates of incarceration, those rates could jump to 1-17 white males, 1-6 Hispanic males and 1-3 African American males.
Heather provided our group with a brief history on how rates of incarceration have jumped since the 1970’s; including periods of civil unrest, the war on drugs and tough on crime political platforms. Heather shared how public perceptions can shape policy and how the general public consistently over-estimates violent crime rates and recidivism rates. She countered that many other Western countries have seen a decline in incarceration rates, the United States has not, and these counties do not have “tough on crime” political ideation. She suggested that we utilize how we vote, how we read the news, who we choose to employ and where you choose to volunteer as ways to balance how society can reshape reality.
Heather ended her program with how 95% of prisoners will be released back home at some point in their lifetime. There as discussion that employment is one of the strongest predictors of rates of recidivism and that if an individual is employed one year or more, their chance of re-offending drops from 52% to 12%. Incarceration has lasting impacts on housing, employment, public benefits eligibility, jury service, parental rights and taxes. Heather countered with longer punishments do not help recidivism rates, the war on drugs is not the answer and offered suggestions on bail reform, expungements and ban the box on employment applications.

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