Those are the words of Rayshard Brooks during a heartbreaking interview filmed in February of this year — just a few months before he was tragically shot by police. Brooks talks about the agony of being trapped in a prison reentry and probation system that won’t let him get back on his feet.
His killing at the hands of Atlanta police certainly highlights the need for police reform. But it demonstrates something else that is equally urgent, though rarely discussed: America’s desperate need to overhaul our probation system.
There is a sad irony in America’s justice system: our police have too much power and too little oversight. And people returning home from prison have too little opportunity and too MUCH oversight. In that Wendy’s parking lot, those twin failures were on a collision course — and Brooks paid the ultimate price.
In other words, we do not know why the Atlanta police officer chose to shoot a man who was running away from him. But we can guess why that man chose to run, in the first place. Brooks didn’t want to lose his liberty. Instead, he wound up losing his life.
Rayshard Brooks: a voice from beyond the grave
In the heartbreaking interview filmed by tech startup Reconnect as part of a research project earlier this year, Brooks says:
“If you do something that’s wrong, you pay your debts to society, and that’s the bottom line.”
But he also wonders if there will be a time when he’ll be able to stop paying for them.
“That’s a hard feeling to stomach you know, with you going out and you’re trying and by you having this so-called record… it’s hindering us from going out in public to try and provide for ourselves… and getting ourselves back on track.”
Brooks lost his car and was under mounting pressure to find cash to pay for court fines and probation fees. He frustratedly noted that the process consumed the majority of his time, saying: “It takes you away from your family. You have to try and go out, make means, and yet, my kids. I want to spend some time with my kids, but I really don’t have the time. I have to try and go out, make money for this, make money for bills or trying to get myself back on track.”
“You go to fill out our application and you get to this question: have you ever been convicted of a crime, or have you ever been arrested? You know, you’re sitting there like ‘oh my God. I hope this doesn’t hinder me from getting this job.’ and then you finish up the application and you have some employers that come back to you: ‘Well, Mr. Brooks, unfortunately, we can’t hire you due to the fact that you’ve been incarcerated or you’ve been arrested for this and that and that… just breaks your heart.”
An invisible problem affecting millions
In this election season, we have talked a lot about police misconduct and overcrowded prisons. But the other racially unfair system that impacts even more people is this: mass supervision.
The impact of this is deeply traumatizing — not only for the person on probation, but for their children and family members who are forced to endure a never-ending cycle of separation and loss.
As Brooks says in his heart-wrenching interview, “It’s hurting us, but it’s hurting our families the most. You know, so as we go through these trials and tribulations, it’s hurting our kids, and it’s taking away from our families, you know. The sole provider is a male or female figure, you know, speaking for both, and it’s taking away from us.”
As is clear in Brooks’ interview, people in his situation are made unnecessarily desperate. They are trapped in a system that makes no sense, and very few people can reasonably escape it.
If we want to prevent incidents like this, we must strengthen police training and discipline cops who violate policy. But we also need to dramatically transform the probation and parole system in America so fewer people are made desperate by impossible circumstances created by misguided government policy.
The probation system can be transformed
We launched REFORM to build on the momentum of the #FreeMeek movement (the movement born in response to the unjust reincarceration of Meek Mill for probation violations, now an Amazon Prime documentary series). Our organization’s mission is to dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system — with a hyper-focus on the probation and parole system.
As a result, I have come to believe in nine powerful solutions that could shrink and transform the system of mass supervision (which includes probation and parole).
We talk about people “being on probation.” We should talk about people “rejoining the community.”
1. Go from “supervision” to “support”: Words have power, and we desperately need new ones in the probation and parole system. Terms like “probation,” “parole,” and “supervision” should be replaced with “community support,” “coaching” and “mentorship.” Words have tremendous power, especially when you’re down and working hard to get back on your feet. By changing the language, we can transform the way people view themselves as part of the system.
Limiting probation terms to one year for misdemeanors and two years for felonies saves money, increases the effectiveness of the intervention, and makes our communities safer. It also provides people with a light at the end of the tunnel and mitigates the otherwise hopeless and endless despair people can feel on lengthy probation sentences.
4. Allow remote reporting: There is no reason to require in-person check-ins at a probation office. Covid-19 taught us that many things can be done using technology. In fact, it is both safer and more effective to allow for remote fulfillment of these conditions. Even people on probation with a need for high levels of supervision (for example, someone who also has a diagnosis of schizophrenia and is required to remain med-compliant) has a better chance of making it through probation successfully through the use of remote conditions.
Technology currently allows for a number of remote interventions (including, for example, watching someone take their medication — and even asking to see under their tongue and waiting a certain period of time after ingestion to lessen the chances of a person skipping their dosage — while on camera) and data shows that these remote interventions increase success while on probation. Remote fulfillment also eliminates the persistent problem of conflicting conditions and allows someone to maintain their employment, continue their education, or care for their family while also meeting the conditions of probation check-ins.
6. Offer mentorship: Most successful rehabilitation and anti-recidivism programs recognize the need for leaders with lived experience. Probation, inexplicably does the opposite, going so far as to ban any contact between people on probation. Disrupting this counterproductive practice by creating a mentorship program led by people who have, themselves, been through the probation system would create the necessary supportive and effective interactions that characterize successful programming. Ensuring that the main point of contact for someone on probation is someone who knows what they’ve been through and can successfully help them navigate it is essential to the ultimate goal of them successfully completing their sentence.
7. Invest in re-entry: We can increase our success by using our savings to uplift and support programming that gets to the root of the problem, thereby having a significant and lasting effect on crime rates and incarceration. The savings resulting from limiting the length of probation sentences and eliminating technical violations can be reinvested into programming proven to reduce recidivism and increase public safety outcomes. These include, but are not limited to: skills and strengths tests and training to match people with jobs, education counselors, job placement counselors/ job fairs in the community, mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, realtors to assist with finding transitional and permanent housing, transportation assistance, parenting classes, financial literacy courses and trauma workshops .
9. Reward good behavior: Psychology has long held that positive incentives are more effective than reliance solely on negative consequences. And yet, when the stakes of successfully changing behavior are highest — crime prevention and rehabilitation — our system fails to use the most effective form of intervention. Incentives that encourage people to engage in anti-recidivism and rehabilitative programming provide an essential and fruitful alternative to outdated and ineffective punitive consequences. A system that holds people accountable while rewarding them for taking positive steps to change their lives is one that leads to increased freedom and self-sufficiency, lower crime rates, and greater success overall.
With these changes, America could be on the path to less unlawful police violence, fewer people behind bars, and millions of people freed from a probation system that makes things worse — not better.
We need to be in the homecoming business.
In his final interview, Brooks said: “We can’t get the time back… but we could make up for it. … A lot of things just caused me to be behind, but I’m trying. You know, I’m not the type of person to give up. And I will keep going until I make it to where I want to be.”
Who knows what Brooks could have become, with the right support and better systems? His death represents a double-tragedy that spotlights twin failures in our criminal justice system.
As our nation goes through a Great Awakening regarding racial justice, let us transform policing, prisons and probation — all at the same time.
#Multiple #Language #Support