Some Thoughts on Criminal Justice Reform in the South

 A recent article in the “New York Times” discussed ways states are trying to cut prison costs in the U.S.  

This op-ed and the ensuing dialogue  on the pages of the Times was interesting, wide-ranging, and often circled back to something we care about a great deal here at the Georgia Justice Project, re-entry.  For many, this term, “re-entry” conjures a vision of a man being released from prison who needs a few months of support to get back on his feet.  The reality is that re-entry is a lifelong struggle.  Anyone ever arrested has a criminal history, even if the arrest was based on mistaken identity or the charges were at some point dismissed.  Having a criminal history means facing barriers to housing, employment, benefits, and other opportunities.  In Georgia, employers can deny employment for an arrest that did not lead to conviction as well as for an old minor conviction.  Take for example, a woman we know who was terminated from her job as a school bus driver based on a shoplifting case that occurred 40 years ago when she was only 18 years old.  This devastating job loss happened despite her having decades of work experience and glowing recommendations. 

Though study after study has found the best prevention for recidivism is a job, Georgia has created more legal barriers to employment for people with a criminal history than any other state – and most states in the south do not lag far behind that dubious distinction.  The southern states have erected numerous barriers while serving as ground zero for the nation’s prison population explosion.  The region’s history of racial inequity adds even another layer of complexity to reentry issues. 

Although these counterproductive policies have torn apart the social fabric of the south more than any other region, reform efforts have been painfully slow.   Local and regional organizations struggle to move efforts forward because they are underfunded and understaffed.  That is why last year the Georgia Justice Project joined with other organizations in the south to form The New Southern Strategy Coalition.   This growing coalition, which meets again next February in North Carolina, shares resources to build the necessary momentum for policy reform across the south.  If barriers to successful re-entry can begin to fall here, and it seems that they can, then there is hope for broader reform. The words of DuBois remain true today, “As goes the South, so goes the nation.”