THE LASTING WEIGHT OF FELONY
A Wising Up Listening Project
For our latest Wising Up Listening Project, we spent several years intensively listening to people throughout the justice system share their experience of—and wisdom about—reentry. Our book based on this listening project, Sharing the Burden of Repair: Reentry After Mass Incarceration, is now available. We focus on Georgia, which has gone through a sustained period of criminal justice reform but remains a state with one of the highest proportions of its citizens under correctional control. However the issues raised about incarceration, reentry, and reform apply broadly.
We have listened closely as people at every level of the criminal justice system have shared what they have seen facilitates successful reentry and reintegration—and what makes it more difficult. We have talked with those who have successfully reintegrated and those who have not—along with affected families, parole and probation officers, members of law enforcement, defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, prison chaplains and prison staff, psychologists, employers, legislators, and activists for both prisoners and victims. We have listened with the intention of understanding the core values and good faith of all the individuals interviewed—whether a boy of seventeen being tried as an adult or a judge who faced great adversity as a child and knows it is possible to make other choices, a mother who has emotionally served as much time as her son or daughter, a probation officer who feels the frustration of seeing people stubbornly repeat old patterns—or haltingly develop better ones. We believe that this kind of listening throughout the criminal justice system, our criminal justice system, is essential if we are ever to permanently and effectively reduce our levels of incarceration and create a system that is more just by making a space for constructive reintegration after sentences have been served.
Our several years of listening have already taught us that we need to look more carefully at the stories that as a society we use to understand crime—and justice. We need to collaborate on new ones, more complex, nuanced, compassionate ones that make equal room for the suffering of the victims of crime, the possibility of change and constructive social contribution on the part of those who have been convicted and punished, and the good faith and complicated choices of everyone involved in the criminal justice system. Our interviewing has also taught us that these new stories are already being lived out—we just need to listen for them and then pass them on. This book is one attempt to do so.
Numbers rarely change our attitudes, stories often do. The purpose of the book is to provide a broad, multi-faceted, narrative description of what it means to be convicted of a felony that can be used as a catalyst for constructive community conversations in various settings, so that people of different ages and in different circumstances can have a felt sense for the complexities of our justice system, especially for those who are already at greater social disadvantage and vulnerability.
Our intention is to invite readers into an evocative, affective understanding of these experiences so they can ask themselves what they might do, how they might feel when faced with similar situations—as an ex-offender, a family member, neighbor, teacher, police officer, lawyer, judge, employer, legislator. We focus on first person accounts, even of difficult systemic issues, and, in particular, on moments of insight and moments of choice, because stories help us understand complexities of motive and consequence in a way that engages our emotions as well as our reason, an understanding that holds up well in real-life situations, encouraging us to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
SOCIAL REALITY THAT INSPIRES THIS BOOK
This project is motivated by our deep concern about the individual, familial, community, and societal consequences of mass incarceration in the United States, a social reality that is very evident in Atlanta and other large cities. We are alarmed that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, currently more than two million behind bars. Further, this rate has increased six fold since the 1970s from 110 to 698/100,000. The weight of this tragedy falls disproportionately on poor and disadvantaged individuals and especially on African Americans. The incarceration rate for black males is about six times that for white males—not too long ago it was almost eight times higher. Juveniles are also incarcerated in the U.S. at the highest rate among industrialized countries, again with a greatly disproportionate rate for blacks. Sentences are also longer, especially for non-violent crimes.
Most importantly, we are interested in what we, as common citizens, can do to redistribute the burden of reentry after mass incarceration. The consequences of felony conviction last far beyond serving one's sentence—often permanently limiting an individual's chances for employment, professional development, housing, social welfare, voting rights and jury duty. Young people compose a large part of the prison population, serving sentences for crimes, often non-violent ones, they committed at points in their development when they may not have been aware of the life-long consequences of their actions. We are alarmed that as a society we give so little attention to the consequences for those imprisoned--and on their families and communities--long after their sentences are served .
WHO WE WANT TO REACH
We hope the book will facilitate discussions in schools, community centers, churches, juvenile facilities, and with groups who have had much—or little—exposure to the criminal justice system. Our two main audiences are citizens who may feel untouched by our criminal justice system, or overwhelmed by its complexity, but who have social influence much greater than they may realize, and young people at risk of criminal convictions that will mark them for the rest of their lives, who do not understand the level of jeopardy they face. Our larger aim is to create more fully informed and compassionate civic engagement at all levels of society around the issue of crime, crime prevention, and justice.
We are providing the print book at close to cost to encourage its use by groups working with at-risk youth and youthful offenders, concerned parents, educators, common citizens concerned about mass incarceration and reentry, and groups actively focused on reentry and reintegration. An inexpensive electronic version will also be available. We will be happy to work with people interested in using parts of the book for educational purposes.
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