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Justice reform advocates continue legacy of civil rights movement

February 23, 2018
In honor of Black History Month, The Sentencing Project is shining a spotlight on some of our valued colleagues working to address racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

In honor of Black History Month, The Sentencing Project is shining a spotlight on some of our valued colleagues working to end mass incarceration and address racial disparities within the criminal justice system. These activists work on an array of issues including reentry, parole reform, and youth justice. Here they explain how their work fits into the larger movement for human and civil rights:

Susan Burton

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Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project in California and is the author of Becoming Ms. Burton. A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project provides housing, pro bono legal services, case management, and advocacy and policy development on behalf of formerly incarcerated women.

“Mass incarceration is a symptom of a larger problem, which I call ’America’s isms.’ Classism, racism and capitalism, are the driving forces behind our broken criminal justice system. I work on these issues because I want to do good in the world. My life experience tells me that if people are given a real opportunity, they will be able to overcome these American isms.

The end goal of the criminal justice reform movement should be to abolish the nation’s prison system as it exists today. It’s now a place that punishes people instead of rehabilitating them. We would be a better country if we could look inside our nation’s places of confinement and say we are treating people with dignity and repairing those who are broken. Until we embrace everyone’s possibilities and potential, we can never get to a place where everyone has achieved full human or civil rights.”

Mujahid Farid

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Mujahid Farid is the leader of RAPP: Release Aging People in Prison, a grassroots organization in New York seeking a transparent, inclusive, and fair parole process that would expedite the release of elderly incarcerated individuals. 

“Criminal Justice reform is absolutely inextricably intertwined with the larger movement for civil and human rights.  Wherever we begin our research, we note that the application of criminal justice policies and practices were directly connected to the broader design to maintain and control the population of people of African descent who were relegated to the status of slaves, and who were deemed to be less of full human beings. This history is still evident in the current practice of criminal justice policies throughout its scope; from the manner in which policing is applied in black vs. white communities, to the imbalanced rate at which people of African ancestry are punished and confined.

I work on these issues mainly because as a person of African descent I am a direct target of the negative impact, and have been so negatively impacted throughout my life. To truly reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration, we must end the existing “punishment paradigm” in the United States. This great struggle requires the participation of all freedom-loving people; it is through that unity we will be successful.”

Erica Fielder

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Erica Fielder and her husband are the founders of the advocacy organization, Hearts for Inmates in South Carolina. Through community-based programming, Hearts for Inmates works to counteract the effects that incarceration has on incarcerated individuals and their families.

“We have to ensure that those who are within the system are not being constantly dehumanized and not treated or placed in positions that would violate their human or civil rights. The reason why I became a part of the solution – or should I say we -is my husband became a part of this same system.

I think that there should be incentives and or programs in place where a person who has been incarcerated can earn sentence reductions, increase parole release rates and also create retroactive sentencing reform including for violent offenders. I think that those who are being charged should have the full knowledge of that they are being charged with and have an attorney who can properly defend them. Every day I awake with hope in my heart that change shall and will come but I know that will not happen unless we continue to educate and have the necessary conversations on the impact of incarceration. The work is not easy but the greatest reward is giving the men and women hope. Hope in knowing that someone is fighting for them but also loves them despite their mistakes.”

Jason Smith

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Jason Smith manages the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency’s efforts to raise the age of jurisdiction for juvenile adjudications and reduce the use of out of home placement for youth by increasing community-based programming. 

“Currently, the U.S. violates one of the most fundamental human rights—fair and equal treatment under the law—by not addressing, and often fostering, the racial disparities that exist at every phase of the justice system. I’m privileged to have the opportunity to work on criminal justice reform, an issue that disproportionately and unfairly impacts black communities nationwide. I believe that reforming our country’s criminal justice system to be more fair/equitable, rehabilitative, and focused on restoring harm to crime victims requires a broad systemic change that can only be achieved through a combination of legislative and grassroots advocacy.  The criminal justice reform movements’ ultimate goals for ending mass incarceration should be to reduce the number of individuals entering the justice system, improve conditions, treatment, and services for current prisoners/youth in confinement, improve prisoner reentry services, and better track outcomes for justice-involved.”

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