Actions You Can Take to Advance Justice Reform in 2023

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Jan 18, 2023

As this new year rings in, nearly 2 million people are locked in U.S. jails and prisons. But punitive incarceration should not be the default in the criminal legal system when there are so many better alternatives that can more successfully provide justice and safety.

Here are some things you can do to help build criminal legal and immigration systems that actually respect humanity and dignity and promote safety for all.

Support the Abolition Amendment and other campaigns to end slavery

The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, except as punishment for crime. This exception created an incentive to criminalize people to steal their labor and is being exploited to this day. Estimates suggest that up to $14 billion in wages is stolen from incarcerated people each year.

But just last year, four states—Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—voted to outlaw this appalling practice with state legislation. And Vera has joined numerous justice organizations and individual people in supporting the Abolition Amendment, a federal bill that would finally outlaw slavery, for everyone, with no exceptions.

For information about how to support efforts to end slavery on a state and federal level, visit the Abolish Slavery National Network.

Support the Access to Representation Act

New York could become the first state to establish the guaranteed right to counsel for all people facing deportation. This would promote fairness in immigration court, where people are not guaranteed an attorney unless they can afford to pay for one.

Immigration law is notoriously complicated, and people should never be forced to face court proceedings—often in a language they cannot understand—with no one to defend their rights, but this happens every day. As a result, many people who could have established legal residency in the United States are exiled from their communities and separated from their families.

New Yorkers can call or email their representatives in the Assembly and Senate to voice their support for the Access to Representation Act. Learn more about efforts to establish a federal right to counsel in immigration court from the Fairness to Freedom campaign.

Get involved at the local level

Around the country, the fight to end mass incarceration is being won at the town and county levels. Grassroots groups are successfully working against local jail expansions, pushing for policies that decrease incarceration, and advocating for increased investment in solutions that promote true public safety.

In Wilson County, North Carolina, for example, Emancipate NC, the NAACP of Wilson County, and the Community Alliance for Public Education pushed the county to expand its use of citations instead of arrests for low-level charges and limit the use of jail for charges stemming from poverty, like driving with a revoked license. And in Hays County, Texas, the advocacy group Mano Amiga San Marcos successfully pushed the City of San Marcos to pass Texas’s first cite-and-release ordinance for people accused of low-level infractions. Mano Amiga also successfully advocated for Hays County to launch a holistic public defender office, which will offer services from social workers and client advocates to investigators and civil attorneys, in addition to criminal defense legal services.

Other similar groups operate around the country and deserve organizing and financial support.

Use person-first language

Dehumanizing language facilitates the systemic, inhumane treatment of groups of people. This is certainly the case for people impacted by the U.S. criminal legal and immigration systems.

It’s important to not refer to people who are or were incarcerated as “prisoners,” “convicts,” “ex-cons,” or “felons.” It’s also important to not call immigrants without documentation “illegal.” Better alternatives include “person who was convicted of a crime,” “person who is incarcerated,” “person convicted of a felony,” and “person seeking lawful status.”

These words and phrases matter. Using dehumanizing language defines people only by a past act and does not account for their full humanity or leave space for growth. These words also stoke fear and promote dangerous untrue stereotypes, stigmatizing people who have been convicted of crimes and making it harder for them to thrive.

As Eddie Ellis, a prison reformer and pioneer in pushing for humanizing language, said, “Calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.”

Send a letter to someone who is incarcerated

Punitive, isolating incarceration does not actually make us safer. As we work for alternatives that support true public safety, it is important to offer support to the nearly 2 million people who are behind bars.

Letter writing is one way to help decrease feelings of isolation, and there are many pen pal programs that connect incarcerated people with letter writers in the outside community. For example, Black & Pink, a prison abolitionist organization, coordinates a nationwide pen pal program connecting people to incarcerated LGBTQIA2S+ pen pals to build relationships and support networks.

Support people as they return to their communities

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people leave state and federal prisons and must try to rebuild their lives despite numerous barriers to lawful employment, housing, and stability. It’s important to support efforts to pass fair chance hiring laws that “Ban the Box” and prevent blanket exclusions of people with conviction histories. There are also numerous reentry programs seeking volunteers to support people as they return to their communities.

Ending mass incarceration, and repairing its many harms, will be no easy task, but there are steps we can all take so that future generations may live under systems that treat all people equally and with dignity and humanity.