There are more than one million and nine hundred thousand people confined across US correctional institutions. There are three million and seven hundred thousand more people under community corrections – probation and parole. Combined, that’s over five million and six hundred thousand people who currently experience some type of carceral control.



People who have favorite colors and a favorite subject in school. People who grew up in big cities and small towns. People who are introverts, and extroverts, and introverted extroverts. People who snort when they laugh and who cackle loudly when they find something really funny. People who pick out their favorite hat and their Sunday best and people who pray five times a day. People with sisters, and brothers, families, and framilies – friends so close who become family – who love them. People who are early birds and people who are night owls. People who stop to feel the sunshine on their face and people who have danced in the rain. People who sing in their cars, trains, and on the walk home. People who are children of other people and some who have children themselves.

Before they lived in institutions and were under supervision, they entered the system through it’s front door – jail. Police booked these people into jail and started a slow burning process where the system stripped them of their personhood – all that is unique about them. The system reduced them down to their most serious charge and, in some places, to a score measuring their risk for arrest, again.

Sadly, what we know about many of these people is the trauma and challenges they experience. Over 47% are navigating a substance use disorder, over 40% have a mental health disorder, and 20% are navigating both at the same time. We know upwards of 75% of youth in the system have experienced physical abuse and 40% of youth have experienced sexual abuse. We know between 85% to 95% of women who are involved in the system have experienced domestic or sexual abuse, too. Many are navigating poverty, and a disproportionate number are Black, Latine, Indigenous and other racially minoritized people.


People with complex stories. 


Following their arrest and police booking them into jail, many had to pay money to secure their release from jail despite the lack of evidence suggesting paying for your release from jail improves public safety. Some people remained detained in jail while their families and framilies did their best to find money to secure their release. And, so began the slow but oppressive reach of the system on other people.

If and when they were released from jail following their arrest, their local court system required them to show up, and show up often, and rarely provided any resources to help them get there – even knowing that many did not have the resources to take off work, find childcare, or catch a ride. And, when they were absent, the court system likely sent them to jail again even though emerging research shows 53% of attorneys, witnesses, and arresting police officers do not show up themselves for court hearings. Then the cycle continued where families and framilies tried again to find more money for release. The reach continued.

When these people were convicted of their offense, the court sentenced them to jails, prisons, and probation – the system. The system expected perfection to the rules in these spaces while ignoring the complexity of their context and rarely acknowledged their strengths, what made them laugh, and what they wanted to do in life before they were arrested. They arrived at these places and people who work in the system asked them to report their race, but only select one box. Staff asked them to report their gender, but only in the binary.  Staff required them to answer sensitive questions about themselves and then issued them another score reducing them, again, to a single calculation of their risk for continued offending behavior.

These sentenced people live in correctional institutions or walk into offices with gray walls and are among similarly situated people who once felt safe someplace else, too. For the one million and nine hundred thousand people currently incarcerated, many will experience solitary confinement where they live in boxes 23 hours a day, absent mirrors to see themselves, and away from green grass. For the three million and seven hundred thousand people under probation supervision, most will struggle to follow the rules like meet with their probation officer, secure and maintain employment, and enroll in treatment. Those who struggle too often will likely return to jail or prison for things that are not illegal, for behaviors that are not new crimes.

Let us be clear, some of these people have committed very serious offenses against other people; however, most people who the system churns are people arrested for non-violent crimes.

Of the one million and nine hundred thousand culturally unique and eclectic people held across US correctional institutions, nearly 95% will return home at some point and then 66% will experience a new arrest within three years. Of the three million and seven hundred thousand people under community supervision 16% will have their probation sentence revoked and return to incarceration. This next time they cycle through the system though, the system will have less patience with them, less tolerance, and ignore more of what makes them them. The system will label them habitual, repeat offenders, and the system will not acknowledge why. The system will not take accountability for how it contributed to the chaos.

On the day five million and six hundred thousand people were arrested, the system no longer saw their humanity.


The System.

There is not one criminal legal system in the US; instead, there are thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems all churning people differently. Place matters. Some systems are well resourced, some systems are not. Some systems are small, and some systems are big. However, all systems maintain antiquated policies and practices prioritizing the surveillance of people and powered by an inertia to keep doing what’s always been done.


People Working in the System.

Within these draconian systems people are quietly working. People who want to help other people. People who also sing in their cars, on trains, and on the walk home. People who knew the system provided a stable source of income and good health insurance for their families. People who dance in their kitchens, and some with their children. People who cook and people who order in. People who felt inspired to change other people’s lives.

However, for these people, the system requires them to ask people in the system sensitive questions before ever asking them their favorite movie. The system requires these people to count other people confined in boxes and watch people lose themselves in those boxes while those people can’t even see themselves. The system requires these people to drug test people in the system and physically watch them urinate into a testing cup. The system desensitizes these people. The system’s policies, practices, and physical environment reduces these people – people once energetically working to help people in the system – to cogs in a large machine.

Across people working in the system some research shows more than 25% experience depression, 27% experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and 17% experience both. The constant stress of the job can create severe medical concerns such as heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Many use alcohol or other substances to cope and some experience divorce. A national study found some criminal legal system staff experience a suicide rate that is 39% higher than the working general population. On average, the life expectancy of some criminal legal system staff is only 59 years, nearly 16 years below the national average. The system batters them, too. The system also strips them of their humanity.

People navigating the system and people working in the system are all people who want to go home to their families and framilies, to eat warm meals, and feel safe. Yet, everyone is surviving. Surviving each other and surviving the criminal legal system.


Bigger Impact

Over the last ten years, Justice System Partners has worked to transform these systems into systems that are more equitable, effective, and humane. While we have had an impact, we have reflected over the last year on how best to make a bigger impact.

In our discussions, we realized that perhaps we took the wrong approach. We have previously focused on first changing the environment – creating new structures and removing policies and practices. We have focused on first providing staff training by developing leadership and technical training to improve the skills of staff working in the system. We also focused on the people navigating the system by quickly implementing and evaluating practices that reduce their likelihood of future arrest. While these approaches were useful and effective at times, they failed to see the humanness in it all.

In our reflections of making a bigger impact in the next ten years, we realized that instead of starting any collaboration with framing the need for change, we must start with the acknowledgement of humanity. We cannot transform any system until we see humanity in each other. Now, we’re on a voyage to help systems transform themselves by first recognizing humanity in each other.

What would it take to see humanity in each other?

First, we must recognize that everyone is simply having a human experience and trying their best. We must recognize that the criminal legal system is traumatic and is a source of violence to all people surviving it. The system is structurally racist, ableist, heteronormative, sexist, and cis-sexist to both people navigating it and the workforce working within it. We must recognize that the trauma of the system prevents everyone from doing their best. We must stop asking people to rise to the occasion, and instead realize that the system literally blocks people from excellence.

Then, we must recognize that we made the system up. We built it brick-by-brick. We can simply stop doing it the way it’s always been done. We can stop trying to fix it with small implementation efforts that never seem to transform the structure itself. We can stop doing it altogether. We can reimagine accountability and community safety. We can stop seeking the absence of crime and, instead, center the metrics of community wellbeing. We can imagine something incredibly new, and we must be willing to give our power to people who have historically had none and allow them to shepherd this something new.

We need to see the context of people entering the front door of whatever new thing we invent, and recognize how community systems, or the lack of community systems like access to quality health care, education, and homes funneled people into our dismantled criminal legal system’s revolving door. We need to apologize for previously leaving them behind. We need to assure them that we got them this time. We must mean it.

Meaning it requires us to first ask people who they are, not what they’ve done. Meaning it requires us to center them – how they process information, learn best, the language they speak – to build programs to help them. We need to challenge ourselves to consider how to build culturally responsive programs. We need to hand different and new people the mic to do this.

We need to see staff working in this new system as the once energetic people looking to make a change and build organizations prioritizing their wellness. We must keep this new system from building structures, policies, and practices that force these staff to process other people. We need to build working environments that reflect the vibrant humanity of the workforce.

We need to use data, but remember the people represented in this data. We must get to know the context of places and people in the data. We can no longer reduce people to bar charts, scatterplots, and regression models. We must tell stories of survival, of recurrence, of progress, and success. We must accept the stories people tell us are true. We must believe them and their lived expertise.

We think it is possible to truly transform the current system while still holding people accountable for the harm they’ve caused to others. We hope in the next ten years, systems recognize that the decisions they make impact people. We hope in the next ten years, all of us see the humanity of people navigating the system, especially. We must.

There are over five million and six hundred thousand people – people – counting on it.

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