The streets of Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and many other cities across the nation have been overflowing with protests for the past month in reaction to grand-jury decisions not to indict police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The anger and frustration many people feel over those deaths and many others involving the excessive use of force by police is understandable, particularly when it comes to encounters with African-American men and boys. ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization, recently reported that young black males are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot dead by police, based on an analysis of 1,217 deadly U.S. police shootings from 2010 to 2012.
The problem of police brutality aimed at blacks has been with us for a long time. What’s different today is the prevalence of cameras—an important factor identified by the international human-rights group Witness, which offers guidance to rights advocates and citizens on how to acquire evidence of abuse. Increasingly, video evidence of unjustified and excessive use of deadly force coupled with viral dissemination of such evidence via social media has led to a new movement to demand that police acknowledge a simple fact: Black lives matter.
Despite the anguish of the current protests, we should not lose sight—through the tear gas or the tears—of the remarkable progress that has been made in criminal justice. More progress is likely in the near future, thanks to the work of not just community organizations but also foundations that have supported the drivers of change — documentary and feature films, investigative journalism, public-media news reports, and strategic advocacy campaigns.
Foundations, nonprofits, and people who make media of all forms are working together in new ways to push much-needed reforms, and they will need to step up to do more in the coming months and years to overhaul America’s despicable prison system.
More than 2.4 million people are now incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons and jails, reflecting a vast expansion of the prison population since around 1980, when harsh sentencing guidelines were introduced as part of the Reagan-era war on drugs. African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be incarcerated, and per capita incarceration for Hispanics is nearly three times that of whites.
As the comedian John Oliver recently pointed out in his HBO television program "Last Week Tonight": "We have more prisoners at the moment than China—than China! We don’t have more of anything than China, other than, of course, debt to China."
How did we get here?
Films like "Slavery by Another Name," supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Coca-Cola Company, tell the story, showing how thousands of African Americans were put back into slavery in the Jim Crow South, as states created sham laws criminalizing routine aspects of black life and forced those imprisoned by such laws to work without pay.
Likewise, "The House I Live In," a film by Eugene Jarecki supported by the Ford Foundation, among others, chronicles the way that many of America’s drug laws were initially introduced as a way to control specific racial groups—opium laws designed to rein in Chinese immigrants; bans on marijuana as a way to control Mexican immigrants; and laws against cocaine and heroin to be used against African Americans. Until authorities decided that they needed tools to contain these specific populations, all of these drugs were tolerated in polite society. After all, who do you think put the Coke in Coca-Cola?
"The House I Live In" was recently recognized as one of five winners of the Britdoc Impact Awards. The film program published a highly detailed report citing the film’s aggressive outreach campaign, which aims to end mass incarceration in America and supports common-sense reform of drug laws, in part by redefining the public debate from "the war on drugs" to "the failed war on drugs."
While these films paint a sweeping portrait of our troubled system, some films have a much more direct impact on public policy.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced a new policy rolling back highly inflated interstate telephone rates that prisoners and families had to pay. Policy advocates like the Center for Media Justice had worked for years to reform these abusive rates, but one of the most influential events in the campaign was a special screening at the FCC of the Participant Media film "Middle of Nowhere," directed by Ava DuVernay, better known for her eagerly awaited film "Selma," about a pivotal moment in the life of the iconic civil-rights figure Martin Luther King.
In announcing her support for lower phone rates for prisoners and their families, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn of the FCC cited "Middle of Nowhere" as "the compelling story of a young family separated by long distance due to incarceration." It may seem like an arcane area of law, but the new rules will result in greatly reduced phone rates for prisoners and their families.
One of the most compelling indictments of the overall prison-industrial complex comes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book by Michelle Alexander that resulted from an Open Society Foundations fellowship. The book has become the bible for prison-reform advocates and others, sparking a broad popular movement.
Diane Wachtell, executive director of The New Press, which published The New Jim Crow, says that everyone associated with the book has been astounded by its enormous success. After an initial print run of about 3,000, the book is now in its 13th printing, and more than 400,000 copies have been sold. In an expansive case study published last month, Ms. Wachtell explains how the book has catalyzed a faith-based movement, professional conferences, and student protests, among other activities.
In retrospect, Ms. Alexander’s 2005 description of her project seems audacious: "to reframe the public debate on issues of race and criminal justice by providing a new lens through which the experiences of people of color in the criminal justice system can be interpreted and understood." But indeed, that is what has happened as a result of her book.
Increasingly, prison-reform advocates are also seeing common cause with the need to reform school discipline. In many communities, excessive school discipline has become a school-to-prison pipeline, with increasingly harsh penalties for students whose suspensions often result from relatively minor infractions. The California Endowment recently led a statewide communications campaign titled Fix School Discipline. It decried the fact that, in 2011 alone, nearly 800,000 students in California were suspended, mostly for offenses unrelated to violence or drugs.
The Fix School Discipline campaign, which is one of eight cases detailed in Communications Strategies that Fast Track Policy Change, brought visibility to an issue that was not widely recognized and helped bring about a 27-percent drop in suspensions in just three years.
While such noteworthy efforts are transforming the lives of many young people, it is important to note that we are now poised, after making great progress in many of these areas, to enact even broader and bolder reforms of the criminal-justice system.
The Open Society Foundations demonstrated how important this moment is by announcing a $50-million grant to the American Civil Liberties Union, to be used for advocating for changes in the criminal-justice system.
Open Society, the ACLU, and others say this is a pivotal moment, not just because of widespread anger about cases like those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Criminal justice, as they see it, might be the only area in which our polarized political parties can find common ground.
Van Jones, founder of the advocacy group Rebuild the Dream, notes that fiscal conservatives, evangelical conservatives, and libertarians are all converging to make a new conservative case for prison reform. For instance, he is joining forces with Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House, to lead an effort called #Cut50, designed to cut America’s prison population in half.
In a recent opinion column published by CNN, Mr. Jones and Mr. Gingrich stated: "It is past time for both political parties to come together and fix a bad system of their own making."
Now it’s time for more forces in philanthropy to join the fight against a system that is so at odds with America’s democratic values.