Monday, November 19, 2018
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ACLU Campaign Aims to Reduce U.S. Prison Population and Combat Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice System

Interview with Anderson Curtis, an organizer with the ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign in Connecticut, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Smart Justice campaign is calling for an end to mass incarceration in the U.S. and to instead create a support system for people leaving prison to transition back to their communities. In Connecticut, the campaign has held rallies outside of every gubernatorial candidates’ debate. Organizers say a majority of Connecticut voters believe it’s important to reduce the state’s prison population.  And according to a recent poll the overwhelming majority — 87 percent, including 90 percent of Democrats, 90 percent of Independents, and 78 percent of Republicans — say the state should increase funding for programs that help formerly incarcerated people find jobs, housing, and medical care.
Under Connecticut’s outgoing governor, Democrat Dannel Malloy, the prison population has dropped from 20,000 to 13,500, but the state ranks sixth worst in terms of black/white racial disparity in the criminal justice system.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Anderson Curtis, a Connecticut-organizer with the Smart Justice campaign, who talks about the ACLU’s election-related efforts to raise awareness and promote reform in the criminal justice system.

ANDERSON CURTIS: Smart Justice is a campaign run by people who have been justice-involved, whether that’s formerly incarcerated, justice-impacted through a family member or justice-involved with not a period of incarceration. So we are looking to eliminate racial disparities and reduce the prison population of Connecticut by 50 percent to further the end of mass incarceration.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You mentioned, I think, three things: representing people who’ve actually gone to prison; their family members, and people who are justice-involved, who maybe cop a plea to a felony and never actually go to jail, but it sort of haunts them.And then you mentioned a bunch of different categories: housing, jobs, transportation. Can you just run through them and say how people in those different categories are affected?

ANDERSON CURTIS: Well, it could be slightly different for each one, but it really gets to the heart of the trauma of the incarceration; how it’s not just about the person who’s incarcerated, but it’s about his family and his support system because they are impacted because of his incarceration. So, having to go visit him; paying for long-distance phone calls; helping them with money while they’re incarcerated, and just the emotional support alone. It’s a toll just to go to a facility that may be hours away from your home. You may not have transportation and have to rely on a community van to go there, which extends the trip even further. So, it’s a great sacrifice and that’s what it’s really about. There’s the trauma and then there’s the sacrifice of the families that support people that are incarcerated, which continues when you’re released because you’re still dealing with the collateral consequences – you know, barriers to housing because of your criminal record, so it’s like you’re still incarcerated in a way, you’re still dealing with that – that’s what collateral consequence is – so you may be in the community, but your access to employment, housing and basic livelihood is blocked, because of your criminal record.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I was actually listening to the gubernatorial debate and there was quite a bit about criminal justice. And actually, in Gov. Dan Malloy’s eight years in office, with his nationally recognized Second Chance Initiative, the number of people in prison dropped from 20,000 to about 13,500.

ANDERSON CURTIS: Dan Malloy has made some progress; however, there’s plenty of more work to be done, which is employment, housing and the right to provide for yourself and your family, which combines with hope and dignity as a human being. That’s why our slogan is People Not Prisons. And we want to continue to create opportunities for people who are coming home so they don’t return to prison, which is one way of dealing with recidivism – supporting people coming out in their community reintegration, which is also an economically feasible way to reduce the Department of Corrections budget.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So you want to cut the numbers even more.

ANDERSON CURTIS: Yeah, because that number is not the total of those reflected in justice-impacted and justice-involved. You have 4,000 to 5,000 people in pre-trial detention that haven’t even been sentenced yet, that are incarcerated because of inability to make bail. Couple that with another 40,000, roughly, on community supervision, which includes parole and probation. We’re looking to cut all those numbers.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What kind of support do you have?

ANDERSON CURTIS: It’s growing. Right now it’s dialogue with the candidates. They will continue to do what they do until the election, and then we’ll see where we stand after that. But we will continue to engage the community, do different events, attend different events in the community until the election, whereas maybe not more debates but we will go talk to various coalitions and things like that, continue to grow the campaign, and find ways to collaborate with other community members.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And your campaign or the ACLU – you don’t endorse candidates, do you?

ANDERSON CURTIS: Correct. We’re really primarily about our campaign: to reduce the number of people in prison and eliminate racial disparities in our state through policy awareness, public education, and creating opportunities and solutions that work for everyone in the state of Connecticut. Because it’s not just about families or people that are justice-impacted. It’s about people in the state of Connecticut, period. As public safety increases in our community, it increases in all communities across the state. And, again, public safety is access to education, housing, employment and eliminating these racial disparities that are driving these outcomes we’re seeing.

Learn more about the ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign by visiting aclu.org/smartjustice. In Connecticut, learn about how to Stand Up for Smart Justice by signing their petition.  

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