Strengthening Families and Communities

In far too many places around the country, the criminal justice system has damaged the lives and livelihoods of families and whole communities. The effects in African American communities, in particular, have been devastating for generations: families separated and plunged deeper into poverty, stagnating local economies, persistent stigmatization, and children who now grow up expecting to go to prison because so many people they know are or have been incarcerated. Indeed, by the close of the 20th century, a black male high school drop-out had a 68 percent chance of spending a year in prison by the age of 35. More than a million black children had a father in jail or prison.

At Vera, we’re committed to scaling back the reach of the criminal justice system and also fundamentally transforming how the system operates, so that it actually engages families and communities and makes them stronger.

That work begins by investing in young people and their futures, which means keeping the bulk of them out of the justice system entirely. Instead of bringing kids to court for truancy or other offenses that are illegal only because they were committed by a minor—potentially triggering even deeper involvement in the system—local governments can collaborate with communities to create interventions that meet their needs, in part by supporting their families.

It’s essential to treat kids as kids no matter what they’ve done, instead of prosecuting and punishing them as adults. That means raising the age of criminal responsibility nationwide to age 18. For the thousands of juveniles and young adults in detention, or in adult prisons, work on their behalf must extend deep into the system to create safe and nurturing environments in the locked facilities where they live. It must also reconnect these youth with family members who can support them during and after detention. 

Work to support communities also requires bridging the gap between the justice and public health systems. A staggering number of people with mental health and substance use problems are in jail and prison or headed in that direction. The criminal justice system overall is filled with people from communities where access to health care is limited and health outcomes are much worse than average. But it’s possible to provide the care that people deserve, curb the use of incarceration, and improve public health—a blend of benefits to counteract the tangle of perils that characterizes life in many communities currently plagued by poverty and lack of access.

Finally, we have to bring incarcerated people out of exile. Their families need them and they need their families. Such engagement is critical while people are incarcerated. If correctional administrators welcome spouses, children, parents, teachers, friends and all loved ones into facilitates, the outcomes are better for everyone, now and in the future. While there’s no substitute for physical proximity, video visitation can be a supplement, enabling more frequent contact with family and friends who live hours away.

And for people to return home able to support their families and communities, it’s essential to invest in their potential while they are incarcerated. One of the best ways to do that is to bring college back into prison, helping people use it as a sturdy bridge to a new life in which they are employed in well-paying jobs. Another is to make reentry a process of welcoming returning citizens into public housing developments if that’s where their families reside and by marshalling support for them. That requires honoring and engaging the natural support networks that all returning citizens have: their family and community. 

A damaging system can be transformed into one that actually engages families and communities and makes them stronger.

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