Justice has sometimes been in short supply in Prince George’s County, which has had more than its share of instances of police violence and has established and implemented more than its share (following the lead of our state government in Annapolis) of public policies that have locked up too many for too long. That the brunt of such policies has fallen on African-American and Latino youth has made it all the harder to overcome or change direction — racist fears stoked during the era of civil rights, school integration, and white flight proved easier to stir up than to overcome. As a result, our county has no halfway house, no office to assist the thousands of citizens who return home each year.
On May 7, the Prince George’s County Council held a budget hearing to consider programs that address public needs for the upcoming fiscal year. Among the well over 100 speakers using the two-minute time slot to press their requests were about 10 people — returning citizens, church groups aiding those who leave prison without a home to go to, a community bank, and others — who spoke to the need for the county to allocate funds for reentry services, specifically, to reestablish, this time with funding, a reentry advisory council that had passed as a county resolution in 2013. The advisory council never got off the ground because it was never funded in the budget. The turnout was organized by Le Shaun Quander-Mosley, president and CEO of QED Inc, a woman-owned business mentoring and education advocacy group based in College Park and a driving force in the campaign to organize reentry groups and get the county government to proactively serve all its residents, including those who have spent time behind bars.
By something of a coincidence — though perhaps also reflecting how the need to address the injustices of our criminal justice system is in the air — Progressive Cheverly hosted a forum on May 2 that addressed similar needs. Giving the lead presentation was Qiana Johnson, executive director of Life After Release, an organization led by formerly incarcerated women that works with those returning home (and with at-risk youth) to help them overcome barriers that women of color face in Prince George’s County. As an example of the conditions that too many face, Qiana noted that a major reason so many women are in prison is lack of bail money — an injustice highlighted by the fact that most of those who can’t afford to pay are never charged with an offense. Yet being in prison often means loss of jobs, loss of home, sometimes loss of children, circumstances that make moving forward all the harder. In her talk, Johnson highlighted the Black Mama's Bailout project — a national initiative with a local component in Prince George’s County — whose members attend bail hearings and raise bail money for Black women unable to do so. Their work exposes the cruelty of our bail system: In most cases, charges were dropped against the women after the money to release them was raised.
Yet, the fact that community support enabled some to go free served as a reminder that taking action makes a difference. So too did a genuine victory in the case of Kevin Sneed, a young black man beaten by police then himself subsequently charged with assault. After a campaign including a rally and petition drive organized by Black Mothers of Prince George’s County, the charges were dropped. Nonetheless, the structural problem remains — as Qiana pointed out, had there not been a support network and organized pressure, Sneed would likely be in prison.
This structural bias is reinforced by an implicit bias that is itself a product of racism with deep roots in U.S. culture. At Progressive Cheverly’s April 4 forum, Dr. Sharita Jacobs Thompson discussed the historical intersection of race and policing. She described a training program she helped develop that is built around an organized visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture followed by substantive discussion. This training is now mandatory for members of the Metropolitan Police Department, Washington DC’s police force; members of Cheverly’s police force (and our new police chief) also voluntarily participated. Researchers from the University of Maryland’s Applied Science Research Lab reported as well on their work around implicit bias and police training.
Such training will take a long time to change behavior; perhaps local police will eventually stop opposing measures that would increase civilian oversight and accountability on charges of police brutality, such as Sneed experienced, and support for restorative justice will become the norm. That change will involve new laws. Del. Erek L. Barron (District 24) talked to Progressive Cheverly about legislative measures he has proposed or supported in the Maryland Legislature that could serve as steps toward more comprehensive criminal justice reform. Included in this legislation were bills that would help overturn wrongful convictions, limit or eliminate the current bail system, and provide medication-assistance treatment to inmates suffering from substance abuse — itself a measure built on trying to turn the focus of criminal justice in the direction of public health — and supporting reentry programs.
Each step forward toward reforming our criminal justice system, however small, means a great deal to those impacted. Yet, all the while, the deeper need for fundamental change ought not be lost from view. Sitting in that budget hearing and listening to people testify about work they are engaged in — those involved in expanding transitional and supportive housing programs, defending immigrants detained by ICE, maintaining mental health programs, expanding opportunities for students to go to college — was inspiring. So, too, was listening to numerous teachers and parents speaking out for the needs of students and school teachers whose promised pay increases were not forthcoming (the Council subsequently approved that pay — another example of the power of organizing). Knowing that there are people from all walks of life in our community giving of themselves on behalf of some measure of social justice reflects the potential to realize a genuine democracy rooted in the common good. At the same time, each talk, each request, highlighted the lacks, the unmet needs, that afflict far too many of us and which themselves speak to a basic inequality that is itself a sign of — and contributor to — the weakness of democratic rule as it has developed in Prince George’s County (let alone in our state and in our nation). Each reform to expand rights and lessen injustice should then be seen as a step toward making real that promised, needed democracy.
And this is particularly true of those who return home after prison, whether after a week or after years. Qiana Johnson stated that the single most important reform the county could make at present is the creation of an office of returning citizens, similar to the one in place in the District. We also need halfway house accommodations in Prince George’s, a point repeated by several of the speakers at the County Council. All of which returns us to the demand for a reentry council as Quander-Mosley stressed. Intrinsically valuable in and of themselves, a reentry council, an office of returning citizens, and community-based halfway houses can also open up a pathway for changing a system that is too willing to throw away the lives of too many, rather than give scope to each and all to live life to its fullest potential.
Readers are invited to see this recent post in the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace about the myriad issues that hamper returning citizens, and follow the link to the Job Opportunities Task Force's groundbreaking report, "The Criminalization of Poverty: How to Break the Cycle Through Policy Reform in Maryland"