13 Ways to Make a Difference
More than 11 million people cycle in and out of America’s jails every year. The majority of people incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of the charges against them. They are awaiting trial. Of those awaiting trial, many are incarcerated because they were unable to post even small amounts of bail. This means that the determining factor for people’s liberty is very often, the ability to pay. Nearly 70% of those incarcerated in jail are there for non-violent traffic, drug, property or public order offenses. Even very short stays in jail pretrial, significantly increase a person’s chances of being sent to prison. This adds up to a system that disproportionately punishes the poor, places innocent people behind bars for long periods of time—often causing them to lose their jobs among other hardships—and frequently results in serious prison time for those convicted of minor offenses.
How can you make a difference? Here are some ways that people are getting involved:
Learn about your local jail and about incarceration trends in your county so you can contribute to an informed public dialogue about who is being incarcerated, for how long, and on what charges.
Find out about judges and prosecutors in your county. Some judges and prosecutors seek stiff penalties and large sums of bail; others are working with reformers to find safe alternatives to incarceration. Learn about the policies and track records of judges and prosecutors in your area, talk about this with friends and colleagues, and support candidates who you feel are taking the right approach.
Go to court. Courts are public places. Most allow for the public to attend routine arraignment hearings. Watching court proceedings is a great way to deepen your understanding of who is being caught up in the system and why.
Explore the organizations in National Resources to learn more about specific issues in criminal justice and ways that you can get involved.
SUPPORT INCARCERATED AND FORMERLY INCARCERATED PEOPLE AND THEIR FAMILIES
Bail someone out by donating to a charitable bail fund. Poverty should not keep anyone in jail, but in reality, people often remain in jail while their case goes through the system simply because they cannot pay. Charitable bail funds exist in some states with a mission to prevent this from happening. Funds like the Bronx Freedom Fund are able to post up to $2000 bail for people charged with misdemeanors. Of the 600 people that the Bronx Freedom Fund has bailed out since 2007, 55% had their charge dismissed.
Donate to or volunteer for local reentry organizations. The obstacles faced by returning citizens are enormous. They range from practical needs like finding housing and employment to recovering from the emotional trauma associated with being locked up. Reentry and advocacy organizations all over the country seek to help formerly incarcerated men and women to safely and successfully reenter society by providing direct services. Call your local jail and ask which reentry organizations they work with. Then call those organizations to see how you can volunteer. They may need help with interview coaching, resume preparation or with food or clothing donations.
Hire a formally incarcerated person. Finding a job that pays a living wage is a profound challenge for the 600,000 people who return from prison or jail every year. Unemployment and the inability to contribute to household income, compounds the difficulties that people face reconnecting with family upon reentry and heightens the risk of recidivism. In recent years campaigns like Ban the Box have made steps towards breaking down some barriers to employment. Local efforts like the LA based organization 70millionjobs are helping to connect formerly incarcerated people and employers.
Volunteer or teach in a prison or jail. Access to education and training for people while incarcerated can be life changing. Studies show that access to post secondary education while incarcerated reduces recidivism rates by 43%. You can learn about volunteer opportunities near you by contacting the Federal Bureau of Prisons or by calling your local sheriff or local jail.
Provide support to the families of incarcerated men and women. Incarceration doesn’t just affect individuals behind bars; it also impacts their family. Find out how you can donate food or clothing, provide transport for prison visitation, or tutor or mentor the children of incarcerated men or women. Many houses of worship have prison ministries that might welcome your involvement.
Become a volunteer visitor. People are often incarcerated in facilities far from home making visits from family infrequent. For these people and others—like those serving long sentences, visits from volunteers can provide a vital link to the outside world.
Support justice reform research. Reliable data about our justice system is vital to finding the most effective ways to make our system safer and more just for everyone. Organizations like the Vera Institute of Justice, The Sentencing Project or the Prison Policy Initiative, conduct critical research that provides the basis for new legislation, better practices by courts, correction departments, law enforcement and government.
Tell your elected representatives that you care about justice reform. Pay attention to legislation that has the potential to reduce the numbers of people cycling in and out of prison and jail. Tell your elected officials that you want to see incarceration rates going down not up.
Energize your family, friends and colleagues. Host a screening and be a catalyst for awareness. Perhaps your house of worship, workplace, library or civic organizations would be interested in providing space for a screening event.
You can find a more complete list of resources here.