Mass Incarceration

The mass incarceration system in the United States has not always been the way it is.

  • Over the last 30 years, the U.S. prison population went from 300,000 to over 2 million, although even as recently as the mid-1970s well-respected criminologists were predicting that the prison system would soon fade away.
  • Enter the “War on Drugs”, as drug offenses account for a majority of this unprecedented increase in mass incarceration.  *see Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, p. 33; see also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, p. 8.
  • Overall, between 1980 and 2003, the number of drug offenders in prison or jail increased by 1100% from 41,100 in 1980 to 493,800 in 2003, with a remarkable rise in arrests concentrated in African American communities.  *see

However, these increases and disproportionate concentrations cannot be directly tied to crime rates or race.

  • Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.

Rates and patterns of drug crime do not explain the glaring racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

  • People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.
  • Studies frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.  White youth are actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
  • However, black males are admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than 13 times higher than white men.
  • An African American male has a greater chance of going to prison (1 in 3) than college (1 in 5).

*See Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, pp. 98-100, notes 10-14 on pp. 275-6.

Privatization of Criminal Justice System

Prisons are big business, and there now exists a growing move across the country to privatize prisons.

  • Several private prison corporations are now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  Yes, you can now invest in the unprecedented mass incarceration and subjugation of millions of your neighbors.  Along with many other wealthy, powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, who have invested millions in private prisons, you can make some big bucks on the back of a broken man or woman in a system that incentivizes continual mass incarceration and perpetuates institutional racism.
  • The largest private prison company in America, Corrections Corporation of America, sent a letter to the governors of 48 states making an offer to buy their state-run prisons in exchange for a guarantee that the states would keep the prisons filled to at least 90% capacity for the length of the agreement.  *see the letter here and an ACLU response letter here.
  • Currently, several states have privatized their prison systems and have guarantees to keep them at 95-100% capacity. *Listen here to more of this discussion on privatization and mass incarceration from a Moyers and Company broadcast with guest Michelle Alexander (privatization discussion around minute 28, but the whole thing is worth your time).

That’s just sick.  And it doesn’t work.

  • Studies have shown that greater incarceration rates actually lead to increased crime rates.
  • This paradox is due largely to the devastation of cities, communities, and families — mostly of color and lower socioeconomic status — and the state of desperation that lasts for an individual’s lifetime once stigmatized and legally discriminated against.

And the economic incentives to keep up this devastation and desperation are deeply, deeply imbedded in our society.

  • The justice system employed almost 2.4 million in 2003.

Prison profiteers also include:

  • phone companies that gouge families of prisoners by charging them exorbitant amounts to communicate with loved ones;
  • manufacturers of Taser guns, rifles, pistols, and other jail/prison supplies;
  • private healthcare providers who typically provide abysmal healthcare to prisoners;
  • corporations and the U.S. military who use prison labor to avoid paying decent wages for goods and services;
  • and all of the politicians, lawyers, and bankers who structure deals to build new prisons often in predominately white rural communities — deals that often don’t deliver on their promises to these communities.

*see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, pp. 230-2; Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Incarceration, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright; and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag.

Economics of Mass Incarceration 

Although a fiscal argument against mass incarceration is not complete enough to address the deeply imbedded, multifaceted issues we face, there still exists a strong argument to be made from a cost-benefit perspective.  Right on Crime provides a wealth of information and some promising solutions.

  • “In 2006, the United States arrested approximately 1.89 million people for drug-related offenses, up from 581,000 in 1980.  Many of these offenders were incarcerated for non-violent crimes.  They were not immediate threats to public safety, but it was in society’s best interest to ensure that they stopped abusing drugs.  Taxpayers are entitled to ask whether incarceration is accomplishing that goal.”   *see
  • It is not clear, however, that these high rates of imprisonment are leading to safer communities. One study by two professors at Purdue University and Rutgers University has estimated that were we to increase incarceration by another ten percent, the subsequent reduction in crime would be only 0.5%.
  • The state of Florida provides a useful example.  Over the past thirteen years, the proportion of prisoners who were incarcerated for committing non-violent crimes rose by 189%.  By contrast, the proportion of inmates who committed violent crimes dropped by 28%.
  • For this benefit, Americans are paying dearly – between $18,000 and $50,000 per prisoner per year depending upon the state.
  • The nation is also reaching a point where it simply does not have the capacity for so much incarceration. In 2009, the number of federal inmates rose by 3.4%, and federal prisons are now 60% over capacity.
  • These figures are not markers of success. Americans do not measure the success of welfare programs by maximizing the number of people who collect welfare checks. Instead success is evaluated by counting how many people are able to get off welfare. Why not apply the same evaluation to prisons?”  *see

One of Right On Crime’s solutions:  Drug Courts, because they have been proven to work.  *read more here

Another of their solutions:  “Increase the use of custodial supervision alternatives such as probation and parole for nonviolent offenders. In many cases, these programs can also be linked to mandatory drug addiction treatment and mental health counseling that would prevent recidivism.  States’ daily prison costs average nearly $79.00 per day, compared to less than $3.50 per day for probation.” *see more at

We can accomplish our public safety goals without putting people in prison!!!

However, the vested interests run deep and powerful.  Recently, a mental health advocate shared this troubling truth, “When we went to Austin to lobby for mental health dollars, our biggest competition was the private prison lobby. And they were big contributors to legislators from both sides of the aisle.”

The War on Drugs

  • Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the U.S.
  • Between 1985 and 2000, drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half the rise in state prisoners. * See Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, p. 33.
  • Overall, between 1980 and 2003, the number of drug offenders in prison or jail increased by 1100% from 41,100 in 1980 to 493,800 in 2003, with a remarkable rise in arrests concentrated in African American communities. *see
  • Drug arrests have tripled since 1980, resulting in more than 31 million people who have been arrested for drug offenses since the War began.  *see A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on Society, by Marc Mauer and Ryan King, p. 3.
  • There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.  *see Testimony of Marc MauerHearing on Unfairness in Federal Cocaine Sentencing: Is it time to Crack the 100 to 1 Disparity?, p. 2.

Myths of War

  1. The War is aimed at ridding the nation of drug “kingpins” or big-time dealers.

Not even close.  Most drug-related arrests are not for serious offenses.  In state prisons, most people with drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.  For example, in 2005 four out of five drug arrests were for possession and only one out of five was for sales. *see A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on Society, by Marc Mauer and Ryan King and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, p. 60

Professor Mark Osler has some great suggestions here on how to fight the harms of drugs without relying on incarceration of low-level dealers.

  1. The War is principally concerned with dangerous drugs.

Far from the truth, arrests for marijuana possession — marijuana being a drug less addictive and less harmful than tobacco or alcohol — accounted for nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990s.

  1. The imprisoned/convicted drug offenders are the main ones doing the drug offending.

Quite untrue.

  • The dramatic escalation of incarceration for drug offenses has been accompanied by profound racial and ethnic disparities.
  • African Americans comprise 13 percent of the United States’ population and 14 percent of monthly illegal drug users, but represent 37 percent of persons arrested for a drug offense and 56 percent of persons in state prison for a drug conviction.

*from Testimony of Marc Mauer, p. 2.  Don’t forget about what I posted earlier on Day 3.

More War

“Virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war.”  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 62.

  • Probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or danger are no longer required as long as you give “consent” for a search.  Even if you do not feel free to leave when confronted by police or you feel threatened by the manner in which a law enforcement officer “asks” for consent, almost no one refuses.  And it is legal, according to the Supreme Court.  Stop and frisk practices have been in the news in recent years, especially in New York, and rightfully so.  Over 4 million New Yorkers had been subject to police stops and street interrogations since 2002.  9 out of 10 of these New Yorkers were completely innocent.  And on average about 55% have been black and about 32% Latino.  *see NYCLU
  • Pretext traffic stops are another favorite weapon of the War.  In 1984, the DEA launched Operation Pipeline, a federal program administered by state and local law enforcement agencies.  Operation Pipeline trained law enforcement officers to use minor traffic violations (no blinker, tinted windows, etc.) as a pretext to stop someone, how to lengthen a routine traffic stop and leverage it into a search for drugs.  By 2000, over 25,000 officers in 48 states had been trained by the DEA.  Legal scholar Ricardo Bascuas comments, “Operation Pipeline is exactly what the Framers meant to prohibit: a federally-run general search program that targets people without cause for suspicion, particularly those who belong to disfavored groups.”  *see the Bascuas paper  However, 95% of the Pipeline traffic stops turn up no illegal drugs.  *see Gary Webb, Driving While Black 
  • Federal grant money and other machines of War began to pour into state and local law enforcement agencies in the late 1980s.  Millions of pieces of military equipment were handed over from the Pentagon and millions more orders of Pentagon equipment were made from over 11,000 domestic police agencies in all 50 states.  The lists included aircraft, Blackhawk and Huey helicopters, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, bulletproof helmets, night-vision goggles, tanks, bazookas, virtually anything they wanted.  *see Radley Balko, Overkill and Megan Twohey, SWATs Under Fire

Sounds like War to me…  And we could go on and on.

** Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness has served as a guide through many of these startling facts and provides a wealth of resources and deep challenge to our systems of War.  A War waged in our own backyard.  Check it out for a much deeper examination of where we find ourselves in this age.

The Sentencing Project also provides a wealth of information and other resources that have been invaluable.  Here is one to start with, but there is so much more to be found in their work.

Even More War

In addition to the free military equipment, training, and cash grants, state and local law enforcement agencies were given the authority to keep the “booty” of the War — the vast majority of cash and assets seized as they conquered, and all for their own use.

  • Law enforcement agencies, beginning in the mid-1980s, were able to increase the size of their budgets by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of illegal drug activity, use or sales.  All that was required was a showing of mere probable cause that the property had been “involved” somehow in a crime.  Owners had no right to counsel and the burden was placed on them to prove the property’s “innocence”.  Between 1988 and 1992 alone, federally funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets.  *see Policing for Profit, p. 64.
  • And as you might imagine by now, these drug forfeiture laws work in favor of those with assets and against those without.  Mostly poor or of moderate means, the property owners cannot afford to hire an attorney or pay considerable court costs, so challenges were few and far between.
  • An investigation by journalists in Massachusetts revealed that payments in drug profits won reductions in sentences for dealers in almost three-fourths of such cases.  *see Policing for Profit, p. 72.
  • Between 1988 and 1992 alone, federally funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets.
  • Although the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act passed by Congress in 2000 provided for many significant due-process changes, it did not confront and alter the perverse economic incentive and profit motive in drug-law enforcement.
  • Without ever charging anyone with a crime, law enforcement agencies to this day are still legally allowed to seize assets supposedly involved in illegal drug activity.  * See, again, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Ch. 2.

Even though more than 40 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poor people accused of serious crimes have the right to an attorney, today, tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer.

  • Even if they do talk to an attorney it may only be for a few minutes before they are way too often railroaded through a system in which almost all cases are resolved through plea bargaining.
  • Possessing great power — virtually unconstrained discretion, overcharging, mandatory minimum sentencing — to compel defendants to plead guilty, prosecutors “hold the keys to the jailhouse door”.
  • A 2004 report on the status of indigent defense released by the American Bar Association determined that,

“All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring.  Sometimes the proceedings reflect little or no recognition that the accused is mentally ill or does not adequately understand English.  The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

*see Gideon’s Broken Promise.  And again, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 84-9.

The War on Drugs has failed.

  • Americans have the highest rate of illegal drug consumption in the world, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  • Illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. *see study and article  This suggests that the world’s supply of illegal drugs is actually increasing.
  • 38,329 people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose in 2010.

Yet, most of these deaths are preventable.  But the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the drug war and the stigma associated with drug use have blocked the widespread adoption of life-saving overdose prevention policies, including Good Samaritan 911 legislation and distribution of the overdose reversal medication naloxone.

  • Annually, the U.S. spends more than $51,000,000,000 on the War on Drugs.

And it hasn’t just affected us Americans.

  • Some 60,000 people have died in Mexico since 2006, related in some way to the military assault on the cartels.
  • 70,000 weapons of U.S. origin have been seized by Mexican authorities between 2007 and 2011.
  • In 2004, U.S. Congress declined to renew a 10-year ban on the sale of assault weapons, which quickly became the weapons of choice for Mexican drug cartels.
  • Mexico is just one example of other countries devastated by this War.

Check out these websites for a lot more information about this U.S.-led futility:  Drug Policy Alliance and Drug War Facts

The War on Drugs has failed… yet it continues to rage on.

  • 1.55 million people were arrested in 2012 on nonviolent drug charges.

Mass incarceration is not working!  Greater incarceration rates actually serve to increase crime rates.

But there are some glimmers (rays, maybe) of hope.

  • The Justice Department announced that they will avoid charging certain low-level and nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimums.
  • Attorney General Holder stated in a speech to the American Bar Association in August 2013, defendants “now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.”
  • A key bill in Congress is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has passed through committee in the Senate but hasn’t yet been moved to the floor.  It would make the 2010 changes in the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, and enlarge the “safety valve” for minor offenders in drug cases.  *see FAMM
  • Currently, a working group is preparing a major effort with the Department of Justice to move a large number of commutation petitions (like ones necessary for Walter, Thad, Homar, and Don) more quickly, efficiently, and effectively through the commutation petition process.
  • Drug Courts across the U.S. are working.  *See Right on Crime and Drug War Facts – Drug Courts

Here are a couple of organization websites to find ways to get involved and take action:  FAMM and Drug Policy Alliance.

Color and Politics of War

“The law enforcement methods [of the War on Drugs] have been employed almost exclusively in poor communities of color, resulting in jaw-dropping numbers of African Americans and Latinos filling our nation’s prisons and jails every year.”  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 98; *See also Human Rights Watch – Punishment and Prejudice

  • 80% of criminal defendants are indigent.
  • Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.
  • Overall, African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated at grossly disproportionate rates throughout the U.S.

And it isn’t just a right-left, Republican-Democrat, divided issue.  Yes, approaches may be a bit different in some ways, but the results are the same.

  • Bill Clinton vowed that he would never allow Republicans to be perceived as tougher on crime than he.  *read more in Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 56-7.
  • Under Barack Obama not much has changed until very recently in the federal enforcement of the Drug War.
  • Obama has overseen record numbers of deportations and a growing increase in federal immigration-related prisoners.

*See Pew Research and Growth in U.S. Deportation Machine

“Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.”  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, p. 141.

  • While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.
  • The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.
  • Yet, people of all races participate in criminal activity at remarkably similar rates.

*see Center for American Progress, The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States

Stigma and Legal Discrimination

  • Once someone gets a criminal record, they receive a “mark of Cain”, and they are subject to a form of “internal exile” that relegates 1 in 4 American adults, disproportionally people of color, to a permanent second-class status.   *See Webb Hubbell, “The Mark of Cain”, San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2001 and Nora Demleitner, Preventing Internal Exile
  • “Ex-cons” or “Felons” or “Ex-offenders” now become part of the one social group in America that we are free to hate.  We can “treat them like criminals”, less than human, unworthy and shameful.  Legal discrimination becomes the norm.

We may have banned the “Whites only” signs, but new signs have taken their place –

  • if you have a criminal conviction check the box on an employment application, housing application or rental agreements, or even loan applications, forms for public benefits, school applications, and petitions for occupational licenses.
  • Driver’s licenses may be taken away.
  • Health care is often unavailable.
  • Federal educational assistance most often is out of reach.
  • Enrollment in the military?  Forget about it.
  • Don’t even think about owning a firearm for your own protection.
  • Oh, and you are not trustworthy enough to serve on a jury,
  • and we might not even let you exercise your right to vote.

Work gives hope.

  • A study found that finding work was the one thing returning citizens are most consistently preoccupied with in their first month after being released from prison.  *see The First Month Out.
  • One significant reason is the pressure from the criminal justice system.  Parolees must maintain gainful employment, according to the parole agencies in at least 40 states.
  • But the need to work also satisfies basic human needs to be self-sufficient, to find fulfillment and to responsibly contribute, to support one’s family or to add value to the world.  It keeps one busy and separated from old ways of living.
  • Work has been deemed so fundamental to one’s existence that many countries across the world consider it a basic human right.
  • Joblessness, not race or culture or socioeconomic status, is the major controlling factor explaining the high rates of crime in poor communities, especially those of color.  Controlling for joblessness, researchers found that differences in violent crime rates between young black and white men disappear.  *see Donald Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America, p. 219.

Jobs are a crime fighting mechanism.  And quite an efficient and effective one at that.

Jails, not so much.

  • Even though today crime rates are down, no one has found a clear connection between incarceration and the reduction in crime rates.
  • Take for example New Orleans, the “incarceration capital of the world”, according to some.  New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates yet one of highest violent crime rates, at the same time.
  • In fact, some studies indicate that greater incarceration rates actually leads to greater crime rates.
  • This phenomenon is most likely due to the increased state of desperation that follows the formerly incarcerated or one simply with a criminal record the rest of one’s life.

But for the 65 million Americans with criminal records, jobs are extremely difficult to find and secure.  Even some of the most qualified applicants run smack into the wall when applying for jobs.  I can’t say it any better than the following excerpt from the National Employment Law Project‘s 65 Million “Need Not Apply”:  The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment (*see p. 3):

For many companies, criminal background checks are a means to determine the safety and security risk a prospective or current employee poses on the job.  Yet even the assumption that the existence of a criminal record accurately predicts negative work behavior is subject to some debate; one limited study questions whether the two are, in fact, empirically related.  The irony is that employers’ attempts to safeguard the workplace are not only barring many people who pose little to no risk, but they also are compromising public safety. As studies have shown, providing individuals the opportunity for stable employment actually lowers crime recidivism rates and thus increases public safety.

Not only is it a matter of public safety to ensure that all workers have job opportunities, but it is also critical for the struggling economy. No healthy economy can sustain such a large and growing population of unemployable workers, especially in those communities already hard hit by joblessness. Indeed, the impact on the economy is staggering. The cost of corrections at each level of government has increased 660 percent from 1982 to 2006, consuming $68 billion a year, and the reduced output of goods and services of people with felonies and prison records is estimated at between $57 and $65 billion in losses. 

Legal Discrimination

“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”  So the old adage goes.  John Perkins adds, “But it matters who owns the pond!”  And from Shane Claiborne, “Others must be looking at who polluted it.”  But it matters a great deal “who holds the key to the gate and makes the rules about access to the pond.”

  • Nearly every state allows employers to discriminate against job applicants with criminal records.
  • All but ten allow for the exclusion of people simply arrested but never convicted.
  • A wide range of professions are off-limits to those with criminal records due to licensing restrictions, including occupations with no clear connection to the nature of the offense on the record.  These occupational licenses that are off-limits include self-employment jobs such as for a barber, manicurist, or gardener.
  • Employers regularly include a box on a job application that applicants must check if they have ever been convicted of any crime, many times also including arrests even if there was never a conviction.
  • Many employers include misdemeanors, virtually all ask about felonies.
  • And most employers are unwilling to even consider hiring a self-identified criminal.
  • One survey reveals that more than two-thirds of companies reported using criminal background checks for their hiring decisions.
  • This same survey shows that for 74% of the decisionmakers, nonviolent felonies are very influential in the decision not to hire someone.

Employers are not supposed to discriminate against those with criminal records in these ways.  You know, the law supposedly says they can’t.

  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines advising employers that discrimination against people with criminal histories is only permissible if employers conduct an individualized assessment of the applicant.
  • This individualized assessment must include a consideration of the nature and gravity of the offense(s), the time that has passed since the conviction and/or completion of the sentence, and the nature of the job held or sought.
  • Of course, if other laws prohibit people with certain specific convictions for particular jobs, these must be screened.
  • But in all other situations, which are the majority, an absolute bar to employment based on criminal records violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when the bar has a racially disparate impact.

Because of all of the disproportional rates of incarceration and stereotyped criminality associated with people of color (see many of my prior posts), the racially disparate impact has not been hard to find.

  • In fact, just a few years ago, a study found that nearly one-third of young black men in the U.S. are out of work, and the jobless rate for young black male dropouts, including those incarcerated, is a staggering 65%.  *see Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, pp. 90-1.

Yet, despite laws to the contrary, employers routinely violate these guidelines.

  • A National Employment Law Project (NELP) study of found hundreds of ads that blatantly disregard the law and discriminate against people with criminal records.  For example, they say things like

“No Exceptions! . . . No Misdemeanors and/or Felonies of any type ever in background”


“You must not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions on your record. Period.”

And the list goes on.  It is no wonder that the NELP titled their report “65 Million Need Not Apply”.

  • Add to these problems of getting past the application stage the issues of even finding the job in the first place or if one is lucky enough to get a job, then actually keeping it.
  • Those with criminal records, especially the formerly incarcerated, re-enter society often with very few resources to their name.
  • They don’t have appropriate interview attire, work clothes.
  • Transportation is often a nightmare.
  • Driver’s licenses are often suspended, and even if it isn’t they likely won’t have a car.
  • So they must rely on public transportation, which in many places makes it virtually prohibitive for certain jobs.
  • They may spend several hours on sometimes unreliable public transportation and spend a huge chunk of their meager daily wages simply to get to and from work or on the job hunt.

Stable employment is a crime-fighting tool.  Thus, a Fair Chance Hiring Policy will also enhance public safety.

  • According to a study in Illinois that followed 1,600 individuals released from state prison, only eight percent of those who were employed for a year committed another crime, compared to the state’s 54 percent average recidivism rate.  *see Lurigio, Art, “Presentation of Safer Foundation Recidivism Study at the 135th Congress of Correction.”
  • Joblessness, not race or culture or socioeconomic status, is the major controlling factor explaining the high rates of crime in poor communities, especially those of color.
  • Controlling for joblessness, researchers found that differences in violent crime rates between young black and white men disappear.

*see Donald Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America, p. 219.

Stable employment for people with criminal records is good for the economy.

*see “Ban the Box” Fair Hiring Policies Take Hold Around the Nation

Racialization of the Box

  • The unemployment rate for blacks is about double that among whites, as it has been for the past six decades.  *See Pew Research
  • Over one-third of young blacks in the U.S. are out of work.
  • And the jobless rate for young black male dropouts, including those incarcerated, has been 65%.
  • Studies indicate that white ex-offenders may actually have an easier time gaining employment than African Americans without a criminal record.
  • The association of race and criminality is so pervasive that some scholars suggest that black males may suffer more discrimination, not less, when particular criminal history information is unavailable.

*See Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, p. 90; Bureau of Labor Statistics data; and CNSNews; and Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, pp. 90-91, 146-147

Discrimination in public and private housing alike is perfectly legal, and quite prevalent.

  • Beginning in the 1980s with President Reagan and the War on Drugs and continuing into the 1990s with President Clinton’s “tough on crime” capitulation, public housing laws and policies increasingly allowed for legal discrimination against people with criminal records.
  • Today, public housing agencies enforce policies that exclude applicants and evict tenants with even the most minor criminal backgrounds.
  • Not just the formerly incarcerated and ones with criminal records are excluded — Public housing agencies can even bar people with only arrests and those simply believed to be using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol.
  • These harsh exclusionary practices led the Human Rights Watch to declare, “Just about any offense will do, even if it bears scant relation to the likelihood the applicant will be a good tenant.” *see No Second Chance: People with Criminal Records Denied Access to Public Housing, p. 46. This is a fantastic resource about the denial of housing.

“No-fault” clauses may be the most controversial and unfair.  The “legality” of discrimination runs deep indeed.

  • The “One Strike and You’re Out” policy (this is President Clinton’s baby) requires every public housing lease to stipulate that if the tenant, or any member of the tenant’s household or any guest of the tenant, engages in any drug-related or other criminal activity on or off the premises, the tenancy will be terminated.
  • Knowledge of or participation in the illegal activity is no longer required.
  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the “no-fault” clause because the eviction of innocent tenants was inconsistent with the legislative scheme.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed.

So according to the U.S. Supreme Court, people can be tossed out of their homes due to no fault of their own.

  • William Lee and Barbara Hill, evicted because their grandsons smoked marijuana in a parking lot near their apartments.
  • Herman Walker, evicted after police found cocaine on his caregiver.
  • Perlie Rucker, evicted following her daughter’s arrest for possession of cocaine several blocks from her home.

As a result of these fears of “no-fault” policies, thousands of the formerly incarcerated end up homeless.  Vulnerable families have nowhere else to go if not public housing, so they exclude even their own kin who return from prison.

  • A McCormick Institute of Public Affairs study found that nearly a quarter of the guests in homeless shelters had been incarcerated within the previous year.
  • In California a study estimated that 30-50% of individuals under parole supervision in San Francisco and Los Angeles were homeless.  *see Preventing Parolee Failure Program: An Evaluation

Yet, research shows that supportive housing for returning citizens substantially increases the likelihood a person with a criminal record will obtain and retain employment and remain drug- and crime-free.  The use of state prisons and city/county jails will decrease if we provide stable housing to people with criminal records.

Access to decent, stable, and affordable housing is a basic human right.

  • Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.

However, in the U.S. this basic human right can be and is consistently denied to people simply looking for a second chance. “I’m trying to do the right thing; I deserve a chance,” declares a forty-one-year-old African American mother after being denied housing because of a single arrest four years prior. “Even if I was the worst criminal, I deserve a chance.  Everybody deserves a chance.”  *see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 148, quoting No Second Chance, p. i.

Debtor’s Prison

Upon release, the formerly incarcerated are often shackled with enormous debts, practically forbidding them from building a new life and supporting themselves financially.

  • Newly released prisoners are expected to pay a host of agencies, including probation departments, courts, and child-support enforcement offices.
  • Some places they may even be required to pay for their drug testing and drug treatment that they must receive as a condition of parole.  Most of these financial penalties have been created in the last 20 years or so.
  • Jail book-in fees, jail per diems for pretrial detention, public defender application fees, and bail investigation fees.
  • Pre-sentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and work release or residential program fees.
  • Then you add parole or probation service fees on top of all that.
  • And the failure to pay these fees may bring further punishment, community control sanctions, or sentence modifications.
  • These “poverty penalties” persist in piling on late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals cannot pay these debts all at once.
  • Many of these extra fees/penalties enrich private debt collection agencies in the process — some states even allow for debt collectors to charge as much as 30-40% surcharges to the underlying debt.

At the same time, two-thirds of people detained in jails report incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.  They can’t afford to live on their own before these legal troubles and debt accumulation, so of course they can’t pay now.

  • So their hard-earned paychecks get garnished.
  • Up to 65% can be garnished for child support.
  • And then another 35% can be collected by probation officers in most states toward the payment of the fines, fees, surcharges, interest, and other restitution.
  • Yes, that’s 100%.  A newly released prisoner can be required to surrender 100% of his or her earnings.
  • “People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment,” wryly commented a New York Times editorial, “making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.” *see Out of Prison and Deep in Debt  *see also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, pp. 154-7, for even more details about this modern day “debtor’s prison”.

Debtor’s prison continues to exist — even though it is “illegal” in all states.

  • The threat of probation or parole revocation is a tool used in debt collection.
  • Some states allow individuals to “choose” to go to jail as a way to reduce their debt burdens.
  • Other states suspend driving privileges for defaults on these debts, simply perpetuating the cycle of legal discrimination and overwhelming barriers to self-sustaining, new lives post-incarceration.

You just got released from prison.  Now you are homeless, unemployed, and carrying a crushing debt burden.  How do you eat?  Care for yourself, your children and family?  Where do you find that helping hand to get you through this rough patch, back up on your feet, and send you off toward a self-sustaining, productive life?  Not through a job.  Many don’t have families or communities that will or want to help. What is one to do?

And the last ditch safety net of the government – forget about it.

  • President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation in 1996 that imposes a five-year lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) Program benefits, including food stamps.
  • These laws also require welfare recipients to work, including those who have young children and cannot afford childcare, in order to receive benefits.
  • But for someone who is required to check the “box” concerning criminal history on an employment application and for most housing options and suffers under a mountain of debt, it is very possible that even five years won’t be enough to get back on their feet.
  • For some it is a lifetime sentence of poverty, inadequate housing, and just plain struggle to survive.
  • And now they can’t get help to eat.  Even temporarily.

Clinton’s welfare reform law also requires that states permanently bar individuals with drug-related felony convictions from receiving federally funded public assistance.

  • As of 2011, only 16 states and the District of Columbia had taken advantage of the opt-out provision in the law for food stamps, and only 14 for TANF.
  • Exceptions for people in drug treatment have been made in most states.
  • But how many alcohol and drug treatment programs are available to those who cannot afford them?
  • If my experience is any indication, they are few and far between.  Even those programs that might be available often rely on a patient/client’s public assistance for room and board.
  • So you might as well cross this necessary treatment off the list for drug offenders.

The Legal Action Center states,

“Those states that have retained the TANF and food stamp ban suffer the ill effects of counterproductive public policies that fail to address effectively the basic sustenance, housing, addiction, and other needs of people with felony drug convictions who are seeking to reintegrate into their communities. Denying food stamps and cash benefits to these individuals makes it much more difficult for them to support themselves as they leave the criminal justice system and reenter society, and much more likely that they will return to criminal activity and drug use instead of attaining sobriety and gainful employment.

States that eliminate or modify the bans on food stamps and TANF for individuals with drug felony convictions will benefit in a number of ways. Many individuals with criminal records have difficulty obtaining work, either because they lack the skills and education to qualify for a job, or because many employers have policies against hiring individuals with prior convictions. Public assistance and food stamps provide them with necessary survival assistance as they look for employment. By helping them lead more stable lives, public assistance and food stamps also can help reduce recidivism.”  *see Opting Out of Federal Ban On Food Stamps and TANF: Summary of State Laws – This site also has some “What You Can Do” suggestions that are quite helpful.

Silenced — Denial of the Right to Vote

One of the most basic and fundamental rights and building blocks of our democracy is being systematically eliminated from millions of our fellow citizens.  This cannot be good for any of us.

  • Only 2 states in the U.S. allow for the imprisoned to vote.
  • Germany encourages all prisoners to vote, and about half of European countries allow all incarcerated people to vote.
  • The other half that place restrictions on voting in prison are in Eastern Europe, part of the former Communist bloc.

No other country in the world disenfranchises released prisoners anywhere close to the way that we do in the United States.

  • Our laws and policies have even led the United Nations Human Rights Committee to charge that the U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law.  *see Out of Step With the World
  • The ACLU has a great map that reveals each state’s felony disenfranchisement laws.
  • And Nonprofit VOTE has a great summary of states’ laws.

Attorney General Eric Holder has called for changes in laws to let ex-convicts vote:

“These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive,” the attorney general said. “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, the laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”  *see this story in USA Today

Re-enfranchising ex-offenders can produce tangible benefits for both the individual and the community.

  • 2011 Study by the Florida Parole Commission found that ex-offenders whose civil rights had been restored were much less likely to return to prison than others in the released prisoner population, with respective recidivism rates of 11% and 33%.

So…  We don’t want you working with us.  You can’t live here.  Nope, no temporary support for you.  Here, let us pile mountains of debt on you.  Your punishment continues, didn’t you know that?  Oh, and your voice, whether as a juror or voter, we don’t want to hear it.  I guess you could say we just don’t consider you full citizens anymore.  Fair enough, right?  You screwed up didn’t you?  Yeah, all our talk in our society about redemption and second chances, can’t you see that we really don’t mean it?  Lip service.  And we are really, really good at it.

And we wonder why our recidivism rates are so high…


School to Prison Pipeline

  • Students across the United States are being suspended, expelled, or even arrested for minor offenses that once were handled with a visit to the principal’s office, detention, or writing on the blackboard.
  • And yes, you guessed it — students of color are disproportionately targeted and affected by the policies that create what is known as the school to prison pipeline.
  • study released just a few weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reveals troubling racial disparities in America’s public schools.
  • “This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed. This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities.”
  • “The data released today reveals particular concern around discipline for our nation’s young men and boys of color, who are disproportionately affected by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies in schools. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”
  • “The current explosion of school arrests is not caused by an increase in school violence.  On the contrary, research shows that, between 1992 and 2002, school violence actually dropped by about half.”  *see School to Prison Pipeline
  • 40% of students expelled from U.S. schools each year are black.
  • 70% of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino.
  • Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than whites.
  • Black and Latino students are twice as likely to not graduate high school as whites.
  • 68% of all males in state and federal prisons do not have a high school diploma.

*see School to Prison Pipeline fact sheet  This website also shares statistics about the “foster care to prison” pipeline that also disproportionately impacts youth of color.

  • A 2007 study by the Advancement Project and the Power U Center for Social Change says that for every 100 students who were suspended, 15 were Black, 7.9 were American Indian, 6.8 were Latino and 4.8 were white.
  • The same study reports that the U.S. spends almost $70 billion annually on incarceration, probation and parole. This number lends itself to a 127% funding increase for incarceration between 1987-2007. Compare that to a 21% increase in funding for higher education in the same 20-year span.

More resources:

I hope that we continue to see how far and wide and deep the implications of our cultural and societal irrational penchant for punishment go.

Juvenile “Justice”

Across the United States, our criminal justice system sentences thousands of children as adults and sends them to adult prisons. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18.  Almost 3000 have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  Even 13 year olds have been tried as adults and sentenced to die in prisons, usually with no consideration of their age or circumstances of their offenses.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court banned death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes and mandatory death-in-prison sentences for all children.  Judges in trial courts must now consider children’s individual characteristics and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.  And it was only in 2005, after 365 children had been legally executed in the U.S., that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles.  These successes were hard fought and a long time coming.  Organizations like Equal Justice Initiative and leaders such as Bryan Stevenson have paved the way with courageous advocacy on behalf of these children sentenced to die in prison.

However, there is still much work to be done for these kids caught in a system that mostly ignores the perils of poor and marginalized youth today.  Abuse and neglect.  Family and community violence.  Poverty.  Inadequate schools.  Lack of jobs.  Diminished opportunity.  Thwarted promise.  And we continue to ignore these harsh realities, these crises and dysfunctions, that create child delinquency.  Instead, we throw them in jail and lock them up in prison, further victimizing these young victims.

You must watch/listen to Josh’s story.  Words cannot describe…


  • 14 states still have no minimum age for trying children as adults — children as young as 8 have been prosecuted as adults.
  • Around 10,000 children are locked up in adult jails and prisons each day in the U.S.
  • Children are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prisons than in juvenile facilities.
  • Incarcerated children face increased risk of suicide.
  • 250,000 children have been tried as adults and sent to adult prisons since the 1980s.
  • Most of these harsh policies against juveniles in the criminal justice system began in the 1980s with a movement labeling certain youth as “super-predators”.  Oh, and by 2000, many of these “super-predator” criminologists acknowledged they were wrong.  The coming crime-wave had not arrived.  But the damage had been done, and you can see where this has brought us.
  • “While it costs states billions of dollars a year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and treat offenders, investing in successful delinquency-prevention programs can save taxpayers seven to ten dollars for every dollar invested, primarily in the form of reduced spending on prisons.” *see Best Practices in Juvenile Justice Reform (link below)

And again, it is the poor and communities of color that suffer disproportionately.

  • 70% of condemned children 14 or younger are children of color.
  • Don’t forget that a recent study reported that police see black children as less innocent and less young than white children.
  • Youth in the juvenile justice system come disproportionately from impoverished single-parent homes located in disinvested neighborhoods and have high rates of learning disabilities, mental health, and substance abuse problems.

Here are some more resources and some organizations working for transformation.


In 2011, the top five executing countries were China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

139 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Today, in the United States:

For every nine people executed, one innocent person has been exonerated.  Glenn Ford’s story is a fascinating tale of one of the exonerated.  After 30 years on death row in Louisiana.  Innocent.

3095 people are under a death sentence.  Odds are that if we execute all of them, 343 could be innocent.  Carlos DeLuna was likely one of them.

More than half of the 3095 people on death row in the U.S. are people of color.  42% are African American.

Research shows that a defendant is more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black.  *see Racial Disparity in Sentencing: A Review of the Literature and The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 1369 men, women, children, and mentally ill people have been shot, hanged, asphyxiated, lethally injected, and electrocuted by States and the federal government.  *see Equal Justice Initiative

510 of these executions have been in Texas.  That’s more than the next 6 states combined.

The average cost of a Texas death penalty case is $2.3 million vs. $750,000 for life in prison.  *see What Makes the Death Penalty So Expensive

“Few defendants facing capital charges can afford to hire an attorney, so they are appointed attorneys who are frequently overworked, underpaid, and/or inexperienced in trying death penalty cases. In some cases, lawyers representing defendants in capital trials have slept through parts of trial, shown up in court intoxicated, and failed to do any work at all in preparation for the sentencing phase.”  *see Equal Justice Initiative

“Most research on the death penalty demonstrates that the possibility of being sentenced to death does not deter criminals from committing either calculated or spontaneous crimes. There is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty reduces the murder rate. Furthermore, states that maintain the death penalty traditionally have higher murder rates than states that do not (according to FBI data).” *see Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

To dive further into this issue,  watch CNN’s Death Row Stories and check out the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s links page, your connection to a wealth of information about the death penalty, how it affects us all, and what we can do to choose life.


Since 1985, the number of women in prison is increasing at nearly double the rate for men, 404% to 209%.

More than one million women are currently under supervision of the U.S. criminal justice system.  Over 200,000 locked up in prison or jails.

One-third of incarcerated women are behind bars because of drug offenses.

Often these women have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse.

Nearly three-quarters (73.1%) of women in state prison in 2005 had a mental health problem, compared to 55% of men in prison. *see Women in the Criminal Justice System

“From 2000 to 2009 there was a dramatic shift in the racial composition of the women’s prison population.  In 2000, African American women were incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white women. By 2009, that disparity had dropped by half, to less than three times the white rate.

The factors contributing to these changes include:  sharply reduced incarceration of African American women for drug offenses in some states; declining rates of arrest of black women for violent, property, and drug offenses; and, cumulative social disadvantages that are increasingly affecting less educated white women.”  *see The Sentencing Project


The parents of 1 in every 50 children in the United States are in prison, over half of them serving time for non-violent offenses.

More than 40% of parents in prison lived with their children before being locked up.  Half of them were the main source of financial support for their children.

“Sending parents to prison contributes to single-parent households, damages family ties, and exacerbates chronic childhood poverty.” * see Disentangling the Risks and The Sentencing Project

“The likelihood that children will have parents who are incarcerated is disproportionately linked to race. In 1999, one of every 14 black children had a parent in prison, compared with one in every 125 white children. Black children are almost 9 times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison and Hispanic children are 3 times more likely.

60 percent of incarcerated women were not employed full-time when they were arrested, and 37 percent had incomes under $600 in the month leading up to their arrest, compared with 40 percentand28percentofmen,respectively.”  *see Women in the Criminal Justice System

As incarceration rates exploded between 1970 and 2007, the proportion of US-born black women aged 30-44 who were married plunged from 62% to 33%. *see Sex and the Single Black Woman, a fascinating read about how the mass incarceration of black men affects black women

No Human Being is Illegal.

“And we now see that the same get tough rhetoric and politics that birthed mass incarceration is leading to another prison building boom, this one aimed at suspected ‘illegal immigrants’.” — Michelle Alexander, 2014 Christian Community Development Association National Conference Keynote Address

You want to really get me going, let’s talk about immigrants and how we treat them in the United States.  It’s sickening.  And it is related directly, as Michelle Alexander proclaims, to our tough on crime attitudes, attempts at social control of minorities, our fears of the other, all deeply, deeply imbedded in our American conscience and exerting devastating control through our systems.  These immigrants, most of whom have done nothing wrong except “break” laws that are illogical, irrational, counter-productive, and unjust to their very core, came to the U.S. to seek a better life for their families.  What they did is something that not one of us could deny that we wouldn’t also do if it meant the survival, literally, of our families.  And now we are tearing apart these innocent families, shattering their dreams of a better life together.

We cannot let the fear-mongering breakdown of civil discourse lead us to neglect dialogue and action regarding one of the most important issues facing all of us today.  And this isn’t a partisan issue.  All sides are complicit.  Don’t let the spin doctors fool you.  Just like the War on Drugs and the Tough on Crime movements, the poor and marginalized are the first to suffer for political points.

We have got to rise above all this noise!  For the sakes of our neighbors, your classmates, your children’s friends, those who serve us every day in back-breaking occupations so that we are comfortable, for families and communities and cultures that are beautifully beneficial to our “melting-pot” country of immigrants.  Rise up people of mercy and compassion!

  • “[Immigration]‘s the fastest-growing incarceration system in the United States: 3 million immigrants have been held in detention facilities across the country during the past decade… [T]he federal government pays private detention centers between $80 and $120 per detainee per day, though costs are in the $30 range.”  *see Map: The U.S. Immigration Detention Boom  Again, the almighty dollar destroys human dignity.
  • “In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds—even though, in the overwhelming majority of cases, detention is not necessary to effect deportations and does not make us any safer.  Among those unnecessarily locked up are survivors of torture, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, families with small children, the elderly, individuals with serious medical and mental health conditions, and lawful permanent residents with longstanding family and community ties who are facing deportation because of old or minor crimes.  This lock-up system is a massive waste of taxpayer dollars, costing $122 to $164 to hold a detainee each day, or $2 billion a year.  Adding insult to injury, detainees are exposed to myriad abuses—from a lack of adequate medical and mental health care that has caused unnecessary deaths to rape and sexual abuse.” *see ACLU Immigrants’ Rights
  • “For the Fiscal Year that begins October 1, 2013 (Fiscal year 2014), DHS and the White House requested $1.84 billion for DHS Custody Operations. This funding level would amount to over $5 million per day spent on immigration detention.”  *see The Math of Immigration Detention
  • “Congress requires that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detain and deport 400,000 illegal immigrants per year — and ICE’s funding depends on meeting that quota. Since 2008, immigration detention facilities have held an average of 30,000 detainees per day. During the Obama administration, more than 1 million people have been deported.”
  • “Now, just as the federal government has pulled back the throttle on the drug war, it is embarking on an unprecedented campaign to criminally prosecute undocumented immigrants crossing the border. The result: A new wave of non-violent offenders are flooding the nation’s prisons…Immigration offenders represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the federal prison population, providing a lucrative market for private prison corporations that largely control these inmates in the system.”  *see War on Undocumented Immigrants

Reason eludes us.

It just doesn’t make sense.  U.S. Immigration laws and policy, that is.  Here are some examples of our irrational system and how in so many ways it devastates families and communities for no rational reason whatsoever.

As an immigration attorney, I can work within the legal system to get forgiveness for an immigrant who committed murder to stay in the country, but not for a wife of a U.S. citizen who received a U.S. education, holds a respectable job, and has never had any criminal problems or caused any other trouble whatsoever.  The difference is that at one point as a young person, the wife of the U.S. citizen falsely claimed U.S. citizenship.  The kiss of death under U.S. immigration laws.  There is no waiver for someone who chose to check a box on an employment application so they could help put food on the table for their family struggling to survive or who as a young, naive, confused immigrant they nodded their head at a U.S. border checkpoint as they crossed.  But there is a waiver for a murderer.  Reason eludes us…

Read how this irrational law affects a real family in Eloisa and Nick’s story.

An immigrant from Madagascar has a better, much quicker chance to immigrate to the U.S. than an immigrant neighbor from Mexico.  U.S. Immigration laws set an annual limit of 226,000 immigrant visas for family-sponsored immigrants.  Each country’s limit is 7% of the total annual family-sponsored and employment-based limits, i.e. 25,620.  These quotas create the “line” that so many people are stuck in for decades or who others use to derisively tell people to wait their turn.  The more supply and demand and greater opportunity, the longer the line.  Here’s the wait right now for certain family members from Mexico to immigrate to join their families:  21 years for the married or unmarried son or daughter of a U.S. citizen and unmarried son or daughter of a permanent resident.  It’s 18 years for the brother  or sister of a U.S. citizen.  These are the extremes, but even shorter waits for millions of other family members these waits must seem interminable.  And if you don’t have a qualifying family relationship or employer who will sponsor you, then you can pretty much forget about immigrating through the legal system.  Yet, these are the people most able and willing to come to the U.S. and enter our labor market in ways that we desperately need and upon which our comfortable lifestyles depend.

Immigrants tend to fill niches in the labor market where demand is highest relative to supply, complementing rather than directly competing with American workers.”  *see Cato Institute  

Why not be rational and tie immigration opportunities to the labor market?  And in the process compassionately find ways to keep families together?  Reason eludes us…

Finally one more example of so, so many…  A mother of U.S. citizen children and wife of a U.S. citizen husband must leave the country for at least 10 years. Then, and only then, may she apply for a waiver (with a high bar to jump over, even at that point) to then be allowed to have her U.S. citizen husband successfully petition for her to immigrate to the U.S.  Deepening this travesty, the reason why she must leave the U.S., her family, and the only country she has ever known as home.  She came to the U.S. as a young child with her parents, who themselves were fleeing a dead-end situation and seeking the Dream of life in America.  Over several years, again still as a young child, her parents took her back and forth to Mexico just a few times so that the family could take care of ailing relatives.  This mother of young U.S. citizen children and wife to a U.S. citizen has now become victim to what is called the “permanent bar” of immigration law.  However, once here in the U.S. at such a young age, this young woman assimilated, made this her home, became as American as you and me, got her education, worked in productive employment, met the love of her life, began a family, purchased a home, participates in community life, attends church faithfully, pays her taxes, and has never once darkened the doors of a police car or had any contact whatsoever with the criminal justice system.  Yet, any day she could be detained and then removed from the U.S., her family, her home.  Reason eludes us…

Economics of Immigration

Late last year I heard a fascinating talk by Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute.  Below is some of what he had to say.  More food for thought here.

We would see $30 – $90 TRILLION growth in GDP if all global immigration barriers were eliminated.  Sure, that’s impractical for many reasons, yet it goes to show how the more we open up our borders the better off we would ALL be economically.  More workers, more businesses, more consumers equal increases in production possibilities.

Immigration reform would allow for an increase in the labor supply with little labor market competition.  More legal immigration opportunities would push up lower-skilled Americans, resulting in an overall positive impact on wages for Americans.  Immigrants are twice as likely to start companies.  Immigrants consume a lot of real estate.  Capital owners, property owners, complementary workers, consumers, and producers would all benefit from increased immigration opportunities.

What happens to the sending countries?  Well, they benefit from $530 billion in remittances!  This amount dwarfs the government and humanitarian aid provided to foreign countries.  And it goes directly to those who need it, spending it on necessities and capital such as businesses and education.  Immigrants who spend several years in the U.S. and then return home go back with new ideas, capital, creativity, and remake their societies.

What about other externalities, such as welfare or crime?  Poor immigrants are less likely to use welfare than poor citizens.  In fact, they are ineligible either permanently or for 5 years.  The monetary value is less for immigrants, and the welfare rolls are homegrown not imported.  U.S. welfare is designed to help the sick, elderly, and women.  Immigrants are typically healthy, young, and men.  Welfare in the U.S. for the elderly far surpasses that for immigrants and the poor.  Nowrasteh and the Cato Institute suggest that a better solution than building walls to keep immigrants out is to build a higher wall around welfare, especially for Social Security and Medicare.

As for crime, well, immigrants are 1/5 less likely to commit crime.  The undocumented are 1/10 less likely!  There have been only 37 deportation cases on terrorism grounds since 9/11.  Finding terrorists is like finding a “needle in a haystack”, so those national security efforts should be where our money goes in the fight against terrorism inside our borders.  Not spending $2 billion a year locking up survivors of torture, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, families with small children, the elderly, individuals with serious medical and mental health conditions, and lawful permanent residents with longstanding family and community ties who are facing deportation because of old or minor crimes.  *see also Immigration Detention

Immigrants are good for our economy.  They actually make us safer and wealthier as a whole society.  Let’s use both our hearts and our heads to get our nation’s leaders to actually lead us all into a much more prosperous place. No matter where you come from, we are all better together.


On April 17, 2013, eight United States Senators, known as the “Gang of Eight,” introduced an immigration reform bill (S. 744) into the Senate titled “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”  It is a bipartisan, common-sense immigration reform bill.  It would modernize the legal immigration system for families, workers, and employers. The bill will provide a pathway to earned citizenship, continue to strengthen our borders, streamline legal immigration, and crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.  See the Catholic Legal Immigration Network’s great summary for more detailed information about a comprehensive plan that, while not perfect, would certainly move us much, much further down the road toward reasonable, compassionate, and just reform for immigrants and our entire nation.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that the bill would spur significant growth in our economy, adding 5.4% to GDP by 2033, and slash our deficit by $820 billion over the next 20 years.  A large amount of these savings resulting exclusively from an earned pathway to citizenship.

An earned pathway to citizenship would create 820,000 jobs compared to providing legal status alone.

The Social Security Administration analyzed and projected that comprehensive immigration reform would add over 3.2 million new jobs and bolster the solvency of Social Security.

A Gallup poll found that 83% of conservatives and 92% of Hispanics support an earned pathway to citizenship.  Even a Fox News poll shows 74% of Americans supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants “as long as they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check.”  The Senate bill requires all these things.

If we truly believe in the vast benefits that comprehensive immigration reform will bring to our nation, its families, and our neighbors, we must get behind this bill and organize for action.  “We believe in a common-sense solution to our broken immigration system that treats families with respect and dignity, strengthens our workforce and economy, and provides the next generation equal opportunities to education and prosperity.”  If you agree, here’s one organization, Reform Immigration for America, where you can get started acting on your beliefs.  It takes less than one minute to send a letter to your Congressperson.  Here’s another organization, United We Dream.  And there are hundreds more.  Find one.  Share with others.  Act against evil, for it runs deep and wide.  But Love conquers all.

Sex and Money and Poverty and Abuse and Sleep…

Recently, here locally a prostitution ring was discovered by authorities.  A house in a central location in our city served as a brothel, servicing Johns 24 hours a day from Friday through Sunday.  On the first floor, you could buy the use of the bodies of 12-14 year old girls.  The second floor was where you would find satisfaction with 15-17 year old girls.  Another situation found 3 of our local girls between the ages of 10 and 14 trapped in a string of alleged gang initiation-related child sexual assaults.  Daughters.  Sisters.  Neighbors.  Friends of your children.  Their classmates.  And these girls were enticed with the promise of new shoes and a new purse, or a place to be wanted, no matter how misguided this may seem to us.  This happens.  In our own backyards.  And when we actually care enough to bust many of these sex transactions, women most often get thrown in jail while the Johns get slapped on the wrists.

We have bought the poor with dollars and the needy for a pair of shoes…

Yesterday in our staff meeting at the faith-based nonprofit where I work, two staff members shared some of the harsh realities that our community is facing.  Independently, in a way they both centered their request for prayer and action on abuse.  Sex abuse.  Physical abuse.  Drug abuse.  But it all came back to how we as a society make human beings, especially women and children, commodities.  Goods to be used for our own pleasure or comfort.   How we turn a blind’s eye to the devastating realities happening all around us.  It was a cry from the depths for all of us to wake up, wipe the sleep from our eyes, and put our love into action.  Urban boys dealing with the traumas of physical and sexual and mental and emotional abuse runs rampant.  Families and communities are too ashamed to speak up or seek help.  Women and children and immigrants are being bought and sold like candy in a store.  Designer drugs are sometimes the only way to numb the pain.  The stresses of high-stakes testing in our schools leads kids to harmful attempts at escape.  And the vultures are waiting.  While we turn over in our cozy beds and fluff our pillows…

Poverty.  Sex.  Abuse.  Money.  Money.  Money.  It all goes together.  We must wake from our slumber.  For the sake of our sons and daughters.

Below are some great resources, some food to chew on slowly and intentionally, surrounding these issues of sex and poverty and abuse.  Knowledge is power.  Now, let’s act.  Act courageously and compassionately.  Make ourselves proximate to the broken and abused.

Jesus Said Love, a nonprofit organization loving and serving dancers along the I-35 corridor. Support them here.

55 Facts About Human Trafficking

Half the Sky, with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Sex+Money: A National Search for Human Worth is a documentary about domestic minor sex trafficking and the modern-day abolitionist movement fighting to stop it. Since September 2009, the crew has traveled to over 30 states and conducted more than 75 interviews with federal agents, victims, politicians, activists, psychologists, porn-stars, among others.

More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing, by Amartya Sen

160 Million and Counting, by Ross Douthat

Watch What This Make-Believe Girl Means To 1,000 Sexual Predators

Just When A Problem Like Child Slavery Seems So Big We Don’t Know What To Do, A 9-Year-Old Shows Us

Police: 3 children sexually assaulted in connection with gang initiation, Waco Trib


Legal Advocacy

Legal needs such as those that might prevent the loss of stable housing and thus homelessness, the removal of legal barriers to employment, defense against unscrupulous debt collectors or preying lenders, representation in stressful family disputes, and the list goes on and on.  And these are just the civil legal needs.  80% of criminal defendants are indigent and must rely on either an underfunded, overworked public defender system (if it exists where one lives) or a “spin of the wheel, good luck where you land” court-appointed attorney system (never knowing what kind of lawyer and service you will end up with).  The legal needs among the low-income most often present themselves in situations that limit the opportunity for folks to overcome obstacles to some of life’s most basic necessities — work, shelter, food, family, financial freedom – and move forward to more stable, productive, and full lives.

The most cited reasons for lack of access to the justice system are that legal services cost too much, a sense that hiring an attorney would not help, ignorance about how to access the system adequately, and a belief that the legal situation is not a problem. Yet, reports reveal that legal services for low-income populations save taxpayer dollars by reducing the needs for public services and benefits, increase financial security of individuals and families, reduce recidivism, and strengthen the justice system overall, among many other benefits.  We must battle ignorance with truth.  Education, for all of us, empowers.

Yet, we have huge populations of our nation and communities that cannot afford their basic necessities, let alone legal services. Take Waco, Texas, where I live and work, as an example.  Waco has a poverty rate of close to 30%. 75% of jobs in Waco do not pay enough to cover the most basic and necessary living expenses for single parent families with 1 or 2 children (93% if 3 or more children). 65% of the jobs do not pay enough for a two parent, three children household. Almost 50% of two-parent, two-children households, and over 80% of single-parent, two+ children households do not make a living wage necessary to provide for basic necessities. And these incomes required to earn an annual living wage for Waco-McLennan County are anywhere from 2.2 to 2.7 times more than the amount of the federal poverty guidelines.  *see the brilliantFamily Budgets from the Center for Public Policy Priorities

Debunking Poverty Myths and Stereotypes (from Community Concerns June 2013)

In poverty, the choices you have are extremely different from the choices of those with privilege and access to resources. Those with privilege and access to resources have the luxury to make real choices about their future. The crisis of poverty rarely allows you to plan for your future. Most people in poverty do what they have to do to meet basic survival needs and to help those they love who are also in crisis. It is hard to think about having a future when your family is hungry today.

People living in poverty have to make tough choices with their money all day, every day, just to squeak by, and every dollar they spend could land them under the microscope. There’s no room for error. And, unfortunately, there’s plenty of judgment to go around from others. Many people who do not live in poverty have a tendency to criticize the poor and blame them for their supposed laziness, lack of intelligence, or willingness to make bad decisions.

There are many myths and misunderstandings that fuel stereotypes that negatively impact those living in poverty in the U.S. Here are just a few of many myths related to U.S. poverty:

1. MYTH: Poor people are unmotivated and have weak work ethics.

The Reality: Poor people do not have weaker work ethics or lower levels of motivation than wealthier people. Although poor people are often stereotyped as lazy, two-thirds of people living in poverty work an average of 1.7 jobs; 83% of children from low-income families have at least one employed parent; and close to 60% of children have at least one parent who works full-time and year-round. According to the Economic Policy Institute, poor working adults spend more hours working each week than their wealthier counterparts.

2. MYTH: A huge chunk of my tax dollars supports welfare recipients.

The Reality: Welfare costs about 1% of the Federal Budget. The majority of those living in poverty do not receive government welfare assistance.

3. MYTH: Those who get on welfare stay on welfare.

The Reality: Of those that receive welfare assistance, more than half stop receiving benefits after a year, 70% within two years, and 85% within four years.

4. MYTH: Social mobility is possible by working hard.

The Reality: Education is the key to social mobility, not “working hard.” Our current economy requires workers to be more skilled than in the past. This is not our grandfather’s era where people could simply “work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Today, an education provides the bootstraps people need for social mobility. However, many people who live in poverty cannot afford the costs associated with secondary education.

5. MYTH: Poor parents are uninvolved in their children’s learning, largely because they do not value education.

The Reality: Low-income parents hold the same attitudes about education that wealthy parents do. Low-income parents might be less likely to attend school functions or volunteer in their children’s classrooms—not because they care less about education, but because they have less access to school involvement than their wealthier peers. They are more likely to work multiple jobs, to work evenings, to have jobs without paid leave, and to be unable to afford child care and public transportation.

6. MYTH: Poor people have babies to get more welfare.

The Reality: About $60 per month is all that welfare recipients receive for additional children, and in some states the amount is zero. The average welfare family is no larger than the average non-recipient American family. Welfare benefits are not a significant incentive for childbearing.

7. MYTH: Poverty has little lasting impact on children.

The Reality: Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor physical and mental health, and poor self-esteem. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

8. MYTH: Poverty is a minority issue.

The Reality: Poverty is not solely a minority issue. Poverty affects people of all races. Of the Americans living in poverty today, 42% are White, 29% are Hispanic or Latino, 25% are Black or African American, and 4% are Asian. However, poverty has a disparate impact on people of color.

9. MYTH: Poor people tend to abuse drugs and alcohol.

The Reality: Poor people are no more likely than their wealthier counterparts to abuse alcohol or drugs. Although drug sales are more visible in poor neighborhoods, drug use is equally distributed across poor, middle class, and wealthy communities. Studies have found that alcohol consumption is significantly higher among upper middle class white high school students than among poor black high school students. This finding supports a history of research showing that alcohol abuse is far more prevalent among wealthy people than among poor people.



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