Vera's 2020 Justice Platform

Justice Recommendations for Progress

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the 2020 election highlighted the importance of federal policy and its impact on America’s most vulnerable groups.

The country has witnessed alarming inaction on releasing and protecting people from COVID-19 inside jails, prisons, and detention centers; little action to end police violence against Black people; and state and local budget shortfalls and cuts in much needed resources for diversion and reentry. This election gives the nation an opportunity to enact a new vision for a safer and more equitable country for everyone.

Vera calls on the president and the 117th Congress to adopt our justice policy platform, which is based on evidence of what works to reduce crime, promote race equity, and repair some of the harms to people in the justice system and their families so that they can thrive. At a time when our most vulnerable communities have never been at greater risk, we cannot afford to wait to see these ideas translated into policy.

End money injustice: Bail, fines, and fees

No one should be locked up in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail, fines, or fees. Yet every day, approximately two-thirds of the more than 700,000 people sitting in U.S. jails are there not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they can’t pay bail. Bail, fines, and fees extract hard-earned dollars from poor people and communities of color and keep too many people in jail or otherwise involved with the justice system for far too long—which has devastating consequences for individuals, families, and communities. Vera calls for an end to this pay-for-your-freedom system that criminalizes and perpetuates poverty. The federal government should provide leadership and action to curb this injustice across the country.

End federal investment in local law enforcement and incarceration

The geography of mass incarceration has changed. Since 2013, the jail population has grown 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in smaller cities—even as the number of people in jails in the nation’s biggest cities declined by 18 percent. Federal investments in the infrastructure of incarceration have contributed to these alarming increases. The federal government also pours hundreds of millions of dollars per year into local law enforcement—without demanding any real accountability. Ending federal support for local jails and policing and reinvesting those dollars in other community needs—such as education, health care, employment, alternatives to police enforcement and incarceration, and other areas—will improve public safety and enhance community well-being.

Improve transparency and accountability for jails, prisons, law enforcement, and probation/parole

There is a shocking lack of transparency into the workings of America’s prisons, jails, detention facilities, and police departments. Every day, COVID-19 continues to spread inside correctional facilities, which disproportionately hold people of color. But we don’t have data on how COVID-19 and other health issues in jails and prisons are impacting people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups. Moreover, federal mandates to collect and report important local law enforcement data—including use-of-force and police misconduct data—do not exist. Without more transparency, criminal legal system actors cannot adequately respond to dangerous conditions behind bars or end unjust police practices. The federal government should mandate better data collection to provide the public with a window into the populations and practices of police, jails, prisons, courts, and community corrections agencies.

Transform conditions of confinement

Ninety-five percent of people in prison will eventually return to their communities—approximately 600,000 people per year. But the vast majority of people who return are underprepared to reintegrate into society, so much so that an estimated 68 percent of those released from prison are arrested within three years, 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years. Prisons are brutal, cruel, and unsuitable to rehabilitation or healing, and they fail to uphold human dignity or improve public safety. But these harms affect communities of color and poor people at vastly disproportionate rates. The federal government should create and uphold a standard for transformational change inside the prison walls, including ending the damaging practice of solitary confinement, ensuring quality and gender-specific services and health care, making family and community contact a right, and more. Rehabilitation and healing for incarcerated people and increased community safety starts with creating environments suitable for transformation.

Secure postsecondary educational opportunities for those in prison

Higher education in prisons is a sound investment in our future, as it improves safety, sparks opportunity, increases racial equity, and is a proven tool to decrease America’s notoriously high recidivism rates. In fact, incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs are 48 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not. But after the 1994 Crime Bill ended Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, postsecondary educational opportunities in prisons decreased precipitously. Education strengthens families, increases employment rates and earning potential on release, provides financial savings for states, and safeguards dignity for people who participate in these programs. Congress voted to restore Pell eligibility to incarcerated students and we urge federal leadership to ensure that this legislation is implemented as quickly as possible.

Ensure federally funded universal representation for all people facing deportation

Unlike in our criminal legal system, there is no right to a public defender for people facing the devastating consequences of detention and deportation in immigration court. While the federal government currently provides representation to certain people with mental illness in detention and to some unaccompanied children, most immigrants who cannot afford to pay for an attorney—including an estimated 70 percent of people in detention—are left to fend for themselves while facing highly trained government attorneys. And without zealous legal representation, release from detention is nearly impossible, including for humanitarian reasons and despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The available data underscores the impact that legal advocacy has on the lives of immigrants caught in the deportation dragnet: Immigrants who are represented by lawyers are 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond and up to 10 times more likely to establish their right to remain in the United States. Public support for access to counsel is widespread, with national polling indicating that 67 percent of people in the United States support government-funded lawyers for immigrants facing deportation. Such programs already exist around the country, in more than 40 jurisdictions across 18 states. By enacting federally funded universal representation for people facing deportation, the federal government can take a critical step toward a vision of justice that centers due process, human dignity, and fairness.