Holly Harris may wear cowboy boots to work, but the Kentucky mom and Executive Director for the US Justice Action Network (USJAN) is far from your average southerner.
This past Saturday, June 25th, Harris talked about her work to a group of journalists and bloggers who traveled to Washington D.C. from different corners of the country to hear from leaders of the criminal justice reform movement. Harris was the first speaker at FreedomWorks’ #JusticeForAll event, and as the leader of USJAN, she set the tone for what turned out to be a fascinating conference.
The veteran litigator opened her speech by outlining USJAN’s goals, explaining the organization believes “our [criminal] code just doesn’t make sense.” That’s why their “goal is to shrink criminal codes” and “get rid of these unfair, unnecessary duplicative and inconsistent laws.”
But it was something else she told the crowd a few minutes later that got attendees worked up.
According to the Families Against Mandatory Minimums Foundation (FAMM), the female prison population in the United States has grown by over 800 percent in the last 30 years, while the male population grew by 416 percent during the same period. Despite this staggering growth, violent criminals are not being sent to prison in droves. Instead, nearly two-thirds of female prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
Due to mandatory minimums, FAMM contends, many women are given sentences that do not fit the crime — and the result is tragic.
Because 60 percent of women in prison are also mothers to children under the age of 18, the drug war has negatively impacted countless families; the number of American children whose mothers are in jail has more than double since 1991.
When data is broken down into racial classifications, we also learn there’s a serious racial element to incarceration in the United States.
According to FAMM, 380 out of every 100,000 black women in America are in jail, while 147 out of every 100,000 Hispanic women and 93 out of every 100,000 white women are incarcerated. While whites account for 79.8 percent of the U.S. population and 63.8 percent of women in America are white, only 45.5 percent of the female prison population is white. “By contrast,” the FAMM report explains, “black women represent 32.6 percent of female prisoners, but only 12.8% of the general population,” making black children “nearly 7.5 times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.”
Another shocking piece of data relates to the number of individuals with mental health problems in jail. According to FAMM, 73 percent of female state prisoners have a mental illness, a high number compared to the 55 percent of the male prison population with the same conditions.
Women in jail are also more likely to carry HIV/AIDS.
Amid the discouraging data, however, Harris has been able to see an upside, working relentlessly with USJAN to bring justice reform bills to state and federal legislators. As the organization gets involved with local groups to scrap bad laws from the books — and as Harris sees a greater number of lawmakers joining her fight — she believes “every state in the country now is going to be looking at more aggressive criminal justice reforms.” Since “the Bureau of Prisons’ budget grew by roughly 88 percent in nominal dollars” between 2000 and 2015, consuming “a quarter of the Justice Department’s annual appropriations,” FreedomWorks reports, Harris believes the budget crisis every single state is currently struggling with will eventually push legislators to act.
According to USJAN’s website, the organization has successfully lobbied and worked with both Republican and Democratic senators to develop bills like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which, if passed, would reform mandatory minimums for drug offenses, give judges discretion on sentencing, and expand programs that help to keep former prisoners from ending up back behind bars. The bill would also apply reforms retroactively to those already in prison.
The full Senate floor is expected to vote for this proposed law in the near future.
During her conversation with political bloggers in D.C. about justice reform this past weekend, Harris also talked about the “cycle of failure” her organization wants to break by helping former inmates rebuild their lives. But reforming the criminal code is not enough. Harris maintains “the drug epidemic is why we’re seeing this growth” of the female prison population. Cleaning the criminal code is only the first step toward a much greater shift in policy.
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