Van Jones: Atlanta police shootout concerns probation, not just police (Opinion)


These are the words of Rayshard Brooks in a heartbreaking interview filmed in February of this year – just months before he was tragically shot by the police. Brooks talks about the agony of being trapped in a prison reintegration and probation system that will not allow him to get back on his feet.

His murder at the hands of the Atlanta police certainly highlights the need for police reform. But that shows something else that is just as urgent, although rarely discussed, is the desperate need of the United States to overhaul our probation system.

There is a sad irony in the American justice system: our police officers have too much power and too little oversight. And those returning from prison have too few opportunities and too much supervision. In this Wendy’s parking lot, these twin failures were on a collision course – and Brooks paid the ultimate price.

In other words, we don’t know why the Atlanta policeman chose to shoot a man who was fleeing. But we can guess why this man chose to run in the first place. Brooks did not want to lose his freedom. Instead, he ended up losing his life.

Rayshard Brooks: a voice from beyond the grave

In the heartbreaking interview filmed by tech startup Reconnect as part of a research project earlier this year, Brooks said:

“If you do something wrong, you pay your debts to society, and that is the result. ”

But he also wonders if there will be a time when he can stop paying for them.

“It’s a feeling that is difficult to digest, you know, when you go out and try and you have this so-called record … it prevents us from going out in public to try to support ourselves … and get us get back on track. ”

Brooks lost his car and was under increasing pressure to find money to pay fines and probation fees. He noted with frustration that the process had consumed most of his time, saying, “It takes you away from your family. You have to try to go out, do ways, and yet, my children. I want to spend time with my kids, but I really don’t have the time. I have to try to go out, make money for it, make money for bills or try to get back on track. ”

“You’re going to fill out our file and ask yourself this question: have you ever been convicted of a crime, or have you ever been arrested? You know, you sit there like “oh my God. I hope it doesn’t work “doesn’t stop me from getting this job. and then you finish the request and you have employers coming back to you, “Well, Mr. Brooks, unfortunately, we can’t hire you because you were incarcerated or arrested for this and that and that … breaks your heart . “

An invisible problem that affects millions of people

During this election season, we talked a lot about police misconduct and overcrowded prisons. But the other racially unfair system that affects even more people is this: mass surveillance.

There are 4.5 million people on probation and parole, and their lives are hell. They are caught in a catch-22 spider web. They can be returned to prison even if they do not commit crimes.

The impact of this is deeply traumatic – not only for the person on probation, but for their children and family members who are forced to go through an endless cycle of separation and loss.

As Brooks says in his heartbreaking interview, “It hurts us, but it hurts our families the most. You know, as we go through these trials and tribulations, it hurts our children and it takes away our families, you The only supplier is a male or female figure, you know, speaking for both, and that takes us away. ”

As is clear from Brooks’ interview, the people in his situation are desperately made desperate. They are trapped in a system that makes no sense, and very few people can reasonably escape it.

If we want to prevent incidents like this, we need to strengthen police training and discipline police who violate the policy. But we must also radically transform the probation and parole system in America so that fewer people are desperate for impossible circumstances created by misguided government policy.

The probation system can be transformed

I know a lot about this because I’m the CEO of the REFORM Alliance – an organization founded in 2019 by Meek Mill, Michael Rubin, Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter, Robert F. Smith, Clara Wu Tsai, Robert Kraft, Michael Novogratz, Dan Loeb and Laura Arnold.

We launched REFORM to build on the momentum of the #FreeMeek movement (the movement born in response to Meek Mill’s unfair reincarceration of probation violations, now an Amazon Prime documentary series). Our organization’s mission is to significantly reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – with a focus on the probation and parole system.

As a result, I have come to believe in nine powerful solutions that could reduce and transform the mass surveillance system (which includes probation and parole).

We are talking about people “on probation”. We should be talking about people “joining the community”.

1. Go from “supervision” to “support”: Words have power and we desperately need new words in the probation and parole system. Terms like “probation”, “parole” and “supervision” should be replaced with “community support”, “coaching” and “mentoring”. Words have enormous power, especially when you’re down and working hard to get back on your feet. By changing the language, we can transform the way people see themselves as part of the system.

2. Limit the length of probation: We know that long sentences lead to undesirable results, making communities less safe and depriving people of the opportunity to succeed one day. The data show that excessively long probation sentences are one of the main drivers of readmission. We have to limit the length of sentences to one year for crimes and two years for crimes.

The most effective probation and parole interventions take place in the first 10 to 18 months, as the data show that new offenses occur during this period. Leaving people on probation or parole for longer periods leads to increased recidivism (where people find themselves behind bars, even for trivial and non-criminal behavior), reduced public safety, unnecessary costs for taxpayers and unmanageable workloads for officers.

Limiting probation sentences to one year for crimes and two years for crimes saves money, increases the effectiveness of the intervention and makes our communities safer. It also provides people with a light at the end of the tunnel and alleviates the otherwise desperate and endless despair that people may experience during long probation sentences.

3. End of prison for technical violations: Conduct which is not itself criminal, but which violates surveillance conditions is responsible for hundreds of thousands of admissions across the country. Individuals have been raped and returned to prison for: failing to notify their probation officer of a change of address; Go to work; don’t go to work; Become pregnant; cross a neighboring jurisdiction to pick up a child from school; visit a sick parent while another brother also on probation is visiting; get pregnant … and the list goes on and on.

These technical violations cost our country nearly $ 3 billion each year and do not respond to public safety. Perhaps most importantly, the practice of reincarcerating people for technical violations is the main factor behind this feeling in Rayshard Brooks’ stomach: the understanding that you can be sent back to a cell indefinitely for any interaction with the police, even minor. , creates constant fear and a persistent level of trauma.

4. Allow remote reporting: There is no reason to require in-person registrations at a probation office. Covid-19 taught us that a lot can be done using technology. In fact, it is both safer and more effective to allow these conditions to be met from a distance. Even people on probation who need a high level of supervision (for example, someone who is also diagnosed with schizophrenia and who must comply with medication) is more likely to achieve probation through use remote conditions.

Technology currently allows for a number of remote interventions (including, for example, watching someone take their medication – and even asking to see under their tongue and wait for a while after ingestion to reduce the chances that a person skips their dose – – to the camera) and the data shows that these long distance interventions increase success on probation. Remote accomplishment also eliminates the lingering problem of conflicting conditions and allows a person to keep their job, continue their studies or take care of their family while meeting the conditions of probation checks.

5. Reduce the number of cases: A probation officer can be responsible for hundreds of people. It doesn’t work for anyone. It is not effective for people under supervision, nor manageable for the probation officer. The reduced workload size allows probation officers to focus on the people who really need the most support, and allows them to tailor the supervision plan to the dynamic needs of the people on their workload. A lower workload is correlated with more positive results.

6. Offer mentorship: Most successful rehabilitation and recidivism programs recognize the need for leaders with lived experience. Probation inexplicably does the opposite, going as far as prohibiting contact between people on probation. Disrupting this counterproductive practice by creating a mentoring program led by people who have followed the probation system themselves would create the necessary supportive and effective interactions that characterize a successful program. Ensuring that the main point of contact for someone on probation is someone who knows what they have been through and who can help them navigate successfully, it is essential to the ultimate goal of being successful.

7. Invest in back to school: We can increase our success by using our savings to raise and support programs that go to the root of the problem, thereby having a significant and lasting effect on crime rates and incarceration. The savings from limiting the length of probation sentences and eliminating technical offenses can be reinvested in proven programs to reduce recidivism and improve public safety outcomes. These include, but are not limited to: skills and strength tests and training to match people with jobs, education counselors, placement counselors / community job fairs , mental health professionals, addiction counselors, real estate agents to help find transition and permanent housing, transportation assistance, parenting classes, financial literacy classes and trauma workshops.

8. Eliminate unnecessary restrictions: In addition to making probation more individualized and dynamic, there are a number of “standard” conditions that must be removed entirely to avoid arbitrary application and racial disparity. Eliminating standard conditions such as restricting travel for those not at risk of flight is one way to reduce the number of people in prison who do not threaten public safety. As Professor Vincent Schiraldi of Columbia University has discovered, restricting individuals at low risk of reoffending “actually increases their likelihood of re-arrest.” Instead of burdensome constraints and aggressive oversight, we can begin to roll back over-incarceration and remove barriers to success for returning citizens.

9. Reward good behavior: Psychology has long argued that positive incentives are more effective than resorting only to negative consequences. However, when the challenges of successful behavior change are highest – crime prevention and rehabilitation – our system does not use the most effective form of intervention. Incentives that encourage people to engage in recidivism and rehabilitation programs are an essential and successful alternative with obsolete and ineffective punitive consequences. A system that holds people accountable while rewarding them for taking positive action to change their lives is one that leads to increased freedom and self-sufficiency, lower crime rates and greater success in life. ‘together.

With these changes, America could be on the road to less illegal police violence, fewer people behind bars and millions of people released from a probation system that makes matters worse – no better.

We have to be back to basics.

In his last interview, Brooks said, “We can’t get the time back … but we could make up for it. … A lot of things just made me fall behind, but I’m trying. You know, I’m not one to give up. And I will continue until I get where I want to be. ”

Who knows what Brooks could have become, with the right support and better systems? His death represents a double tragedy that highlights two failures in our criminal justice system.

As our nation goes through a great revival of racial justice, let’s transform the police, the prisons and the probation – all at the same time.


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