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Trumka: We Need to Replace Mass Incarceration with Mass Employment

Trumka: We Need to Replace Mass Incarceration with Mass Employment

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke in Los Angeles today in support of the “Yes on 47” campaign. Prop. 47, which will be on the ballot in November, would reduce the classification of some low-level nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The crimes addressed by the proposal include things like minor drug possession and petty theft. Organized labor is a strong supporter of the proposition, as noted in Trumka's speech today at Homeboy Industries.

Read more from Labor's Edge, the California Federation of Labor's blog. 

Trumka described the problem:

[W]e, as a nation under the guise of public safety, spend billions making our country less safe by forcing millions of people of color into a permanent criminal class. We have selectively locked people up, sealed people out and shut entire communities down.

Working families have taken up the challenge:

At the AFL-CIO Convention here in Los Angeles a year ago, I put the question to my brothers and sisters across America’s labor movement: Would we stand together to build a popular movement to reform our criminal justice systems? Our goal would be simple: To advocate for and win a system less “criminal” and more “justice.”

What I heard was a resounding, “YES!”

We committed to do something about it. And that’s what brings me to why we are here.

Trumka reminded the audience of these painful facts:

Today, one-third of black men in America will serve time in state or federal prison at some point in their lifetime. That’s twice the rate from the 1970s and over five times higher than for white men, even though long-term federal studies show us that black men and white men commit crimes at roughly the same rates.

People of color are suspected more, arrested more, charged more, convicted more and imprisoned longer, and that ugly fact has helped America earn the terrible title of the most imprisoned of any developed country. We sentence people to prison at between five and 10 times the rate of any other advanced nation. The more you look at the numbers, the worse it gets.

Let me make this point emphatically. This is not a result of higher crime rates. This is because of lengthy mandatory minimums for drug offenses and “three-strikes” laws that put people away for life…for life. And for all its bluster, guess what? Mass incarceration has not even reduced crime.

But it has been hell on families, especially children. Almost seven times as many kids had dads in prison in 2000 as in 1980.

As you can imagine, a prison-at-all-costs mentality runs up quite a price tag. Can you believe $80 billion a year? It’s true, and the number is four times higher when you count police, judicial and legal services.

The root of the problem isn't an easy one to address, he continued:

Racial profiling is at the heart of this epidemic of injustice.  Sometimes it seems we wrestle constantly with an impulse to discriminate and keep down our poor communities and our brown and black communities.

Maybe we didn’t realize it while it was happening. Maybe some of us chose not to realize it. But now, through the courageous work of many in this room, California and the rest of America are beginning to wake up to the crime of mass incarceration. 

Waking up means understanding that this is an American issue, not an isolated race issue. We pay for it with our taxes by incarcerating instead of educating and employing. We pay for it when we lock people out of good jobs and housing. And we pay for it when we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters. The theme of this event is mass employment, not mass incarceration, because we need to put America back to work. That’s how our families thrive. That’s how our communities prosper. That’s how we can rebuild this country.

Trumka described AFL-CIO's response to the problem:

We said the American criminal justice system today spends too much on punishment and not enough to help people change. We said we believe people should be able to come out of jail or prison and get another chance to contribute to our society.

We oppose mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, and we want to end the unnecessary and indiscriminate privatization of correctional facilities.

We support restorative justice, things like job-training, education, probation and parole…programs that help people reintegrate in our communities. We support treating illegal drug use as a public health issue.

And we support fully restoring all the rights of American citizenship for those who have served their time. Of course, that includes the right to vote and the right to serve on a jury but also public aid for education, housing and employment assistance.

He also responded to those that ask why labor is involved in the issue of mass incarceration:

It’s a labor issue because people who have served their time find themselves locked out of the job market by employers who screen applicants for felony convictions.

It’s a labor issue because families and entire communities crumble when able-bodied men and women come home and aren’t allowed to work.

It’s a labor issue because millions of people have been barred from the polling booth and permanently excluded from our democracy, unable to advocate for good jobs and safe jobs and other working family priorities.

It’s a labor issue because we are police officers and corrections officers, and too many of us in both the public and private sectors step into unsafe working conditions on the job. Think about tensions in the prisons and on the streets caused by mandatory sentencing laws and prison overcrowding.

It’s a labor issue because some companies exploit the public’s fear of crime to pack prisons for a profit.

And finally it’s a labor issue, because labor rights and social justice and civil rights are intertwined. In America, 99% of us have to work for a living. We work together. We live side-by-side. We share the same communities. We share so much, and so we know that when we find injustice…we must call it out for what it is, and fight to make it right.

Trumka was optimistic:

I believe a majority of America, given the facts, will come to the same conclusion we have, that our criminal justice system in America is broken and needs to be fixed. You see, I think almost all of us want to do something, only we don’t know where to start or what to do. Prop. 47 is a great place to start, and campaigning for it is something we can all do.

When you pass Prop. 47, our entire nation will be forced to re-examine what we thought we knew about criminal justice.

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