As the presidential election approaches, Americans are focusing on the well-known national issues that each candidate represents. Less frequently mentioned, however, is the crisis in the United State’s criminal justice system, and how our society treats individuals with criminal records.
“This is an unpopular issue,” said Kendall Campbell of the Fair Chance 4 All campaign. “We spend more money on prisons in the state of Michigan than we do in other areas like education.”
Fair Chance 4 All is a Michigan United campaign fighting for equal employment and housing opportunities for individuals with criminal backgrounds. Campbell was a member of the panel at “Beyond the Box: Criminal Justice Reform,” a Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) sponsored forum at the Arcus Center last Monday.
Since 2011, Fair Chance 4 All has campaigned to get the City and County of Kalamazoo to eliminate the box on job applications that mandates candidates report their personal criminal history. Many ex-felons’ applications were immediately thrown into the trash because of this checked box, making it very difficult for them to find employment after prison, said Campbell.
Now, the City of Kalamazoo cannot inquire about criminal history until interviewing an individual for a position, and then they must supply a reason aside from past criminal history if they choose not to hire that person. For their next campaign, Fair Chance 4 All is petitioning to remove the barrier of the checked box from housing applications and job applications in the private sector.
The forum panel addressed mass incarceration in the U.S. from both sides of the issue: the consequences of life after prison, as well as the juvenile system before prison.
The school-to-prison pipeline and zero-tolerance policies, in which students receive harsh penalties for slight rule infractions, work to kick “problem kids” out of the public school system and into juvenile halls, explained Sep’Tisha Riley, K’18, the Civic Engagement Scholar (CCS) for the HYPE program.
Helping Youth Through Personal Empowerment (HYPE) is a CCE program that works with the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home to promote restorative justice through reciprocal relationships between K College students and the incarcerated youth.
“HYPE seeks to humanize those the system dehumanizes,” said Riley.
While both HYPE and Michigan United work to restore justice to communities negatively impacted by the prison system, the end goal is to change the system to eliminate the need for these programs, said Alejandro Jaramillo, K’18, another CES for the HYPE program.
“There is no reciprocity when theory is not put into practice,” said Jaramillo.
The panel participants urged the audience to continue the critical conversation about criminal justice reform outside of the forum last Monday. Michigan United continues to work for intentional criminal justice policy change through political campaigning in the Kalamazoo area, and student volunteers and interns are always welcome, said Campbell.
“Don’t step back and be idle…if you have the chance to change something, take it,” said Campbell.