As I write this column, it’s been less than 48 hours since Donald Trump announced Sen. Jeff Sessions as his choice for attorney general.
My chest tightens and tears fill my eyes as I think of this man following Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch to that office. Holder was an early national figure in calling for us to leave “tough on crime” behind and embrace a “smart on crime” approach. As someone who has fought for greater justice in our public safety system for nearly a quarter century, his call was a welcome reflection of the changing values in our communities.
Sessions, just this year, in reaction to changing laws regarding marijuana, said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Over the past 25 years, our country has experienced an explosion in prison building, constructed largely on the backs of black and brown people and those struggling with addiction and mental illness.
In just the past few years, elected officials on both sides of the aisle began to face the fiscal and human impact of those failed policies, and our prison population started to trend downward. In Oregon, we flatlined prison growth starting in 2013 but are now seeing an upward trend, most notably in the rate of women going to prison.
Black Lives Matter highlighted the urgency of reforms and transformation of our criminal justice and public safety systems, and that need is not lost on many, including our current attorney general. A week after the election that would replace her with Sessions, Lynch, the first black woman to be AG, said that for many, our criminal justice system “is not a guarantee of equality, but an obstacle to opportunity.” She went on to say: “When we begin to treat defendants as cash registers, rather than citizens … we stain the sanctity of our laws. And we only tighten the shackles of those struggling to break the chains of poverty.”
Fully 70 percent of women in prison in Oregon today are there for drug or property crimes. The vast majority suffer from addiction or mental illness, sometimes both, and almost all are victims of violence. They are disproportionately women of color. What do we achieve by incarcerating these women, tearing them from their children, and interrupting employment?
Professor and activist Angela Davis recently spoke to an audience in Chicago and cited one of my favorite and most relied upon sources of inspiration, a letter from James Baldwin to Davis when she was in jail. In her talk, she cited this passage from the letter:
“Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name. If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own — which it is — and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
When asked what we should be doing now, she had no concrete answer but replied, “Whatever we are already doing, we need to do more.”
There are many fronts where we need to do more and fight as if it were our life on the line, including supporting the safety and liberties of LGBTQ, Muslims, immigrants and refugees – and of those facing long prison terms.
Those of us at Partnership for Safety and Justice will be fighting for the lives and dignity of women sent to prison, who are disproportionately black and brown, who have almost uniformly been harmed by violence, and many of whom struggle with addiction and/or mental health issues. We know that they can be held accountable for their crimes without being sent away for lengthy prison terms, separated from their children, to a place where they cannot get the services they need to rebuild their lives.
We will continue our work to shrink our prison system while building a world where victims receive the support and services they need to rebuild their lives, where people who have caused harm are afforded the opportunity to do better and make amends with dignity, and where the families of both are considered in the policies and services that affect them.
We will also reassess our priorities, digging in deep with friends and allies to unite our work toward common goals that will be achieved with our collective power.
We invite you to join us.
Shannon Wight is the deputy director at Partnership for Safety and Justice, a statewide nonprofit advocacy organization advancing public safety solutions that ensure justice, equity, accountability and healing to achieve safe and strong communities.