By Cherelle M. Dessus
After years of attempts to reform our broken criminal justice system, change is within sight. The First Step Act, a bill that includes important sentencing and prison reforms, has strong bipartisan support in the Senate and has now been endorsed by the president. But if Congress does not pass this legislation by the end of the year, the process will have to start all over again.
One of the reasons reforms are so needed is the disproportionate impact of our criminal justice system on people of color. And the full extent is not even known, as Latinos are often under-counted. Over the past decade, large racial disparities in the criminal justice system have been a point of focus in mass incarceration. In the U.S., people of color are overrepresented in state and federal prisons. However, few prisons properly include Latinos in criminal justice data.
Criminal justice data is used to develop policies that impact sentencing, prison programming and reentry services. If data is not accurate, our justice system will not work effectively. Many of the systems used to track this data overestimate the white population in prison. States that only count people as “black” or “white” would likely label the Latino prison population as “white,” developing an inaccurate picture of who is actually in our criminal justice systems.
This type of data manipulation masks racial disparities, making them appear less extreme than what they really are. Many states do not allow incoming people to self-report on their race. The problem with this way of categorizing is that policymakers and researchers are unaware of the actual number of people of color in the criminal justice system and may fail to respond to a growing population.
Why does this matter? Because data affects policy. After racial disparities between African Americans and white people in the criminal justice system due to mandatory minimums in drug crimes were highlighted, lawmakers began pushing for criminal justice reforms that would make sentencing fairer.
Encourage your state and local officials to support policies that would implement better data reporting in jails and prisons as we value the importance of being counted. We must advocate for greater transparency throughout the justice system, allowing individuals to self-report on their race and ethnicities to develop effective criminal justice reforms.
A comprehensive criminal justice package, including sentencing and prison reforms is needed to improve the inequities in the system. The First Step Act was introduced to reform unjust sentencing laws and to reduce recidivism through program funding increases and reentry services. It will contribute to reducing racial disparities among the federal prison population. Call on your senators to support this legislation.
Peace on the Hill is a monthly column in PeaceSigns written by staff of the MCC Washington Office highlighting congressional developments and detailing ways the church can continue to be engaged in the work of peace and advocacy. Cherelle M. Dessus is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator in the MCC Washington Office.