Receiving the American Constitution Society’s David Carliner Award last year was a huge honor and a wonderful celebration of the connection between criminal justice reform and other progressive movements. For too long, progressive movements have all worked in isolation from each other, but ACS and this award have, like its namesake, celebrated our common struggle for justice and human rights.
I went to law school a decade ago when prison populations were going up and up, and up seemed like the only future. Both the powers that be and the established progressive movement were ignoring criminal justice advocates. The award, named for human rights champion David Carliner, represents an important milestone because it recognizes criminal justice issues – and the victories we have won together over the last decade – as essential victories for the broader progressive movement.
I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to challenge policies that were doing more to exacerbate existing racial and economic disparities in our country than they were doing to respond to crime. I wanted to collaborate with other criminal justice experts – such as incarcerated people, their families and lawyers – to force our country to confront the fact that our criminal justice system has grown so large that it punishes everyone, including people who are not directly involved in the criminal justice system.
Take the U.S. Census. The U.S. Census counts incarcerated people as if they were willing residents of the prison location. This would be nothing more than a good item of statistical trivia if there weren't so many people in prison and if we didn't use this flawed data to draw legislative districts. Taking more than 2 million incarcerated people, who are mostly people of color, and deliberately counting them in the wrong communities systematically changes the legislative districts and therefore every political decision our legislatures make. "Prison gerrymandering" is a very subtle but ever-present thumb on the scale of our democracy. That's a large part of why state legislatures prioritize the demands of excessive punishment over more sensible alternatives.