Justice for Families

J4F is national network of family leaders, impacted by the justice system, working to end mass criminalization, particularly of youth and in communities of color. We are working to advance systemic policy and practice change while also building a base of those directly impacted, to help other families, and collectively achieve and sustain reforms.

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Ak-47s, Single Parents, and Truly ‘Secure Communities’

Oct 26, 2012 | by admin

Analysis of Second Presidential Debate 2012. Responses by President Obama and Governor Romney

In the second presidential debate, Governor Romney and President Obama were asked what they would do to limit the number of AK-47s on the streets and about their stance on immigration. In response to the question about assault weapons, Governor Romney responded by saying he would work to promote marriage and limit the number of single-parent homes. The Republican Party, at least since Reagan, has vilified single parents and ‘welfare queens’ as being part of a ‘culture of dependency.’ In 2010, Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan described 60% of Americans as being “takers” not “makers.” Romney’s now infamous 47% quote is part of this rhetorical onslaught linking govt. assistance with criminality. The classist and racist undertones of this discourse are apparent to those paying attention, who do not subscribe to the same demagoguery.

These false claims and the harm of the resultant policies are also apparent to those families impacted by them as well as those willing to look beyond the stereotypes. Justice for Families’ recently released report, Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice, dispels the myth that the families of youth involved in the criminal justice system are to blame for their involvement. It demonstrates that these families are working hard to support their loved ones’ success despite the barriers placed in front of them by juvenile justice systems. Of 1000+ families surveyed with young relatives in the criminal or juvenile justice system: 2 of 3 had taken time off without pay to support their loved ones; 1 of 5 had taken out a loan to pay court related costs; and 1 of 3 were forced to choose between paying for basic necessities like food or making court related payments.

The irony of Romney’s comments is that our nation’s criminal justice system, the principle response to violence in communities, has done more to tear apart families than to keep them together. As Families Unlocking Futures demonstrates onerous court fees and fines, remote youth and adult prisons, and incredibly costly phone calls and restrictive prison visiting policies burden families of  incarcerated youth across the country.

President Obama and Vice President Biden have sought to distance themselves from the rhetoric that paints broad swaths of the American people as a bunch of moochers out to defraud the government. Yet, both parties have presided over the defunding of social support systems and the increase in policies that expand the world’s largest penal system. It was former Democrat Bill President Clinton who slashed social assistance programs and ushered in policies resulting in the largest increases in the number of people in federal and state prisons ever.

Today, one of the fasting growing elements of the nation’s punishment system is an immigrant detention and deportation system. While President Obama called out Governor Romney for his support for a strategy of “self-deportation,” Obama has supported the devastating “Secure Communities” program resulting in the deportation of more persons in his four-year term than under both of former President George W. Bush’s terms. Obama’s debate response notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of those deported are not ‘gang bangers.’ The report, Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System demonstrates many of those deported are parents and grandparents responsible for the care of children. Only 4% of those deported have been charged with an aggravated felony (which includes theft and non-violent drug offenses). The ‘gang banger’ rhetoric, whether coming from Democrats or Republicans, tends to demonize families who are involved in the immigrant detention and criminal justice systems and provides cover for the passage of costly and ineffective ‘tough-on-crime’ legislation.

Democrats need to get their policies in alignment with their rhetorical support for the security of everyday Americans. Commendably, President Obama did meet with survivors of shootings in Aurora, Colorado. However, his support in the debate for a federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, was tepid–a political maneuver when we need leadership. More guns on the streets have meant more mass shootings. There is no evidence that arming civilians will prevent these tragedies.

If we want to achieve genuine community safety, we have to move beyond the stereotypes and rhetoric. The FBI recently reported the number of violent crimes in the United States increased 18 percent last year, the first year-to-year increase in violent crimes in nearly two decades. This should be cause for concern but not alarm as crime rates fluctuate from year-to-year nor should it be used to promote more ‘tough-on-crime’ misguided criminal justice policy. To achieve truly secure communities requires divesting from what hasn’t worked and investing in what can, including limiting the availability of guns, expanding the accessibility of mental health services, providing meaningful pathways to citizenship, and investing in public education and other building blocks of successful lives.

by Zachary Norris