by Jodi Hansen
WHAT’S IN A NAME? I am often asked why we named our nonprofit Remnant Initiatives. It’s a great conversation starter and I am fond of explaining that at its core, the name means “small actions.” I usually go on to elaborate that in recovery circles there is a common saying to “just do the next right thing” rather than try and do something big. Setting one’s concerns too high in the midst of a major life transition is often a recipe for failure. However, by taking life one day at a time, the next right things eventually add up, and true transformation happens. At Remnant Initiatives we get to put this truth into action by walking alongside our neighbors transitioning back into mainstream society while they do the same. The first few days and weeks out of prison are incredibly stressful for everyone, but doing the next right thing, and the next right thing, and then the next, eventually, leads to stable employment, independent housing, mending relationships with family and community, and a future filled with hope.
ONE SMALL STEP… Just as taking small steps in the life of someone trying to change habitual and destructive patterns of behavior are critical to gaining systemic health and well-being, small actions in the reform of our criminal justice system also have great power in moving our society toward better economic/social health and well-being. We can’t keep on doing the same thing and expecting a different result when it comes to how we arrest, adjudicate, and sentence drug addicted, poor, and traumatized people who fall into crime. We have learned much in the past 50 years of fear-based War on Drugs and Tough on Crime approaches to justice—specifically, that fear-based and punitive approaches simply don’t work. We have better science about addiction, trauma, poverty, and the human brain’s ability to heal and grow than we did years ago when we passed sweeping and destructive laws designed to punish some of our most vulnerable citizens. As a culture, we are ready to admit we were wrong in our approach to dealing with crime, and we are ready for change.
The First Step Act that was passed in late 2018 proved our desire for change due to its unprecedented bi-partisan support. But, the First Step Act was just that: a first step. There is much more for us to do before we can begin to see the fruit of turning our “remnant initiatives” into healthier neighborhoods. We have learned our lesson and know that we can’t incarcerate our way to public safety. Our criminal legal system is now so big, so complex, so outdated, and so broken, that we find ourselves surveying the wreckage and wondering where to start the clean-up.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT? Before we advance our efforts and take the next step toward reform, we need to understand that the First Step Act only applies to those in the federal system. According the most recent Prison Policy Initiative Whole Pie head-count, that’s only 221,000 of the 2.3 million people presently locked up in our jails, prisons, and detention centers. There is much work to do, and that work is going to happen at the state and local level. Luckily, popularly-supported, bi-partisan, federal legislation often oils the hinges of the flood gates that swing wide to opportunities for sustainable change on the ground where we live.
Presently, in Oregon, we have multiple pieces of legislation before our elected officials related to justice reform. There are four bills directed at youth sentencing reform. There is a house bill focused on holding counties accountable for how they spend Justice Reinvestment dollars designated to decrease prison bed utilization while providing supervision and treatment in the community instead. The proposed House Joint Resolution 10 would amend the constitution to require unanimous jury verdicts to convict someone of a crime. Oregon is the only state left in the US holding on to this Jim Crow-era practice, which presently allows for a 10-2 jury conviction. Other bills addressing Opioid Addiction, sexual assault in our women’s prison, use of deadly force by the police, and “good conduct” sentencing reforms are also before our legislators this session.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGING! So, we find ourselves in this very exciting period of history, finally addressing Mass Incarceration through policy reforms at the federal, state, and county levels. But, what about all the lives who have been impacted by this punitive and ineffective system so far? What about the people who are still not getting treatment for addiction and trauma because we still spend far too much money on locking too many of these citizens up? What about the millions of our neighbors who struggle to obtain living wage employment because of their criminal records? What about all the children, who since the 1990’s, we have tried and convicted as adults and then sent to adult prison to be shaped by other prisoners and not the juvenile rehabilitative system? What about the 44,000 women we separate from their children EVERY WEEK to hold in jails while they await trial—innocent until proven guilty?
Over 90% of everyone we incarcerate will be returning to our neighborhoods—600,000 people making the difficult transition from prison back into community each year. Many of these people have been profoundly shaped by years of institutionalization and don’t have the skills to reintegrate successfully. Yes, legislative reform is the wind of change blowing before us, but, we also need to recognize these people need us to do the next right thing. We all need to accept our collective responsibility for creating this broken system while also working hard to fully integrate these justice-involved families back into our communal life. Our neighbors-in-transition need education, mental health and drug treatment, housing, and other tangible services. They also need prosocial community cheering them on as they do the very difficult work of becoming better neighbors—one day at time. An ancient Chinese proverb says that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. The road trip we’re on to achieve safer communities and more effective ways of dealing with crime begins with just one baby step. Let’s take it together.