In This Episode
DeRay, Sam, Brittany and Clint discuss Ben Carson, the debate around Rikers Island, factoring adversity into the SAT’s, and how the War on Drugs has prevented Black men from obtaining college degrees. Danielle Sered joins DeRay to talk about her book, ‘Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair.”
Guest Biography: Danielle Sered
- The Appeal: Incarceration is Always a Policy Failure
- Rolling Stone: The Complicity of Ben Carson
- The Atlantic: The Reasoning Behind the SAT’s New ‘Disadvantage’ Score
- The Atlantic: How the War on Drugs Kept Black Men Out of College
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to “Pod Save the People.” On this episode, we have me, Brittany, Clint and Sam with the news as usual and this week, I’m joined by Danielle Sered, author of “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair,” and executive director of Common Justice.
Danielle Sered: Prison produces violence. So, you know in Common Justice, we’re in the business of reducing violence.
DeRay Mckesson: My piece of inspiration for this week or the word on my heart is actually a poem from Clint.
Clint Smith: What’s going on y’all? I have a new poem published in the most recent issue of “Wildness” by Platypus Press and I wanted to share it with you all.
“When people say we have made it through worse before”
all I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones
of those who did not make it, those who did not
survive to see the confetti fall from the sky, those who
did not live to watch the parade roll down the street.
I have grown accustomed to a lifetime of aphorisms
meant to assuage my fears, pithy sayings meant to
convey that everything ends up fine in the end. There is no
solace in rearranging language to make a different word
tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe
does not bend in a direction that will comfort us.
Sometimes it bends in ways we don’t expect & there are
people who fall off in the process. Please, dear reader,
do not say I am hopeless, I believe there is a better future
to fight for, I simply accept the possibility that I may not
live to see it. I have grown weary of telling myself lies
that I might one day begin to believe. We are not all left
standing after the war has ended. Some of us have
become ghosts by the time the dust has settled.
Brittany Packnett: Hey y’all. It’s the news. This is Brittany Packnett, @MsPackyetti on all social media.
Sam Sinyangwe: And this is Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter.
Clint Smith: And this is Clint Smith, @ClintSmithIII.
DeRay Mckesson: And this is DeRay @deray on Twitter.
Brittany Packnett: Can we just have a moment of silence for the end of an era, the end of “Game of Thrones?” So look everyone. I know it’s really hard to turn on a podcast these days or Twitter or Facebook or pretty much anything and get a spoiler-free In Memoriam of “Game of Thrones” but we are doing our level best here at “Pod Save the People” to give you a spoiler-free In Memoriam. And there were a lot of twists and turns.
DeRay Mckesson: Eight seasons.
Brittany Packnett: Was it eight seasons?
DeRay Mckesson: Eight seasons.
Sam Sinyangwe: Wow, so that’s what, like nine years or ten years or something cause they took like a year or something off?
Brittany Packnett: Yeah. It’s a long time.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, it is sort of nuts. It’s like also, to think about Arya was a teenager, you know. Arya was really young when the show began. We’ve actually seen so many of the youngest characters really grow into adulthood on the show and like, that’s sort of incredible. It’s also really interesting too that the show, at least at the beginning, did a really good job of highlighting the context in with which the decision were made so it wasn’t just focused on, like the individual actions of people, but you got an understanding of like, how the context actually allowed for the decisions to be made and I want to see more storytelling in the future that does that.
Clint Smith: Shout out to all the folks who have not watched “Game of Thrones.” I stand with you in solidarity and it’s not like a principled stance. It’s just it was like years and years and I just didn’t…had never started. And then before this season, I was like I’m gonna catch up and then I was like, okay, I need to dedicate 67 hours to making sure that I can catch up and I was like, well, maybe I’ll just watch one of those 20 minute recap videos, but for me, I always watched shows seven years late, but it’s been fascinating every Sunday to watch your timeline sort of blow up with the memes and the creativity and like I mean, it’s funny because you can almost imagine certain storylines for yourself without having watched the show based on the way the commentary everybody has, but I don’t know if there’s a show out there that has had and has engaged a fan base as “Game of Thrones” has.
Brittany Packnett: Yeah, and I think that for the future, I’m hopeful that a cultural mammoth show like this can actually be more diverse.
Sam Sinyangwe: Yeah, there’s a couple of things with “Game of Thrones” that have been interesting and you know seeing Clint and so many others who sort of haven’t watched “Game of Thrones,” I suspect that for some folks, it’s those first, I don’t know, like three, four, five episodes that sort of move really slowly and I feel like a lot of people like me included, after the first couple episodes like, I don’t know if I’m trying to watch this show. And then suddenly it just gets really good. So if you haven’t watched it yet, just hang in there. And then the second thing is, you know, seeing everything sort of wrap up so quickly after all of these years I think is sort of a disappointment in some ways, but you know, nevertheless, overall it’s been an incredible series and definitely, you know, a huge cultural moment. It’s hard to even imagine like another show right now that commands the same level of like attention, you know, everything stops at 9 p.m. on Sunday and then everybody just starts talking about “Game of Thrones” and watching it and it’s just been an incredible thing to see and I’m wondering sort of what the next big Show might be and I hope that the producers can capture something, can leverage those moments in ways that can tell, you know, a more diverse story, a more equitable story.
Clint Smith: Speaking of incredible things, this weekend 400 graduates of Morehouse College were on the receiving end of an incredible act of generosity from Robert F. Smith, who is a billionaire investor, I believe. He is the wealthiest Black person in America, I think it’s him and then Oprah. Robert Smith this weekend was the commencement speaker at Morehouse College, which is a place that’s close to my heart. It’s where my father went, met my mom at Spelman, my wife goes to Spelman, sister went to Spelman. So the Morehouse-Spellman ecosystem is the reason I exist.
Brittany Packnett: Wait a minute. Wait, can we pause? Hold on a second. I did not know that about your parents. That is like the ultimate Black love story.
Clint Smith: It’s wild, my mom is a Delta, my dad is a Que. My dad went to Morehouse, my mom went to Spelman and they met at a Shirley Chisholm event in college.
Brittany Packnett: Oh my God. Somebody write that movie.
Clint Smith: I know, it’s like a Spike Lee movie.
Brittany Packnett: Oh my God, somebody write the movie.
Clint Smith: So Robert Smith gave the commencement address and he told 400 Morehouse students that he was going to pay off their student loans and that he’s gonna give a grant in which the class of 2019 graduated debt-free. Just watching the crowd when he said that, it was just this incredible, incredible moment.
I can’t imagine sitting there with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of loans that confine you to making a certain set of choices in terms of what professional and personal decisions you’re going to make over the course of the next several years or decades of your life, and then having somebody wipe it out like that.
It was amazing and people were crying and people were shouting and I mean you saw the graduates, but also the mamas and daddies and the grandmas and grandpas. So many people for whom this is an emancipatory thing in many ways.
DeRay Mckesson: You know, I graduated college with about $60,000 in debt. I remember when we were deciding to go to schools, like my sister, there was a school she really wanted to go to and couldn’t go to that school because my father was like, we just couldn’t like…you’ll graduate with so much debt. I can’t afford this. And it is real that like, you know kids work really hard. They apply to schools that they want to go to and then money becomes this real thing. It’s like, do I want this education and have $60-100,000 in debt to follow me for a really long time, or will I go to a school that, you know is an okay school in terms of where I want to go but like I’ll graduate with no debt, is so real and there are so many schools that are debt-free as just a part of their program and Morehouse is not one of them and this is the single biggest gift to Morehouse by living donor ever. It might be by a donor ever, but definitely by a living donor. It’s important to think to about how we can grow the endowments to just be big enough. Like Bowdoin is roughly the same size as Morehouse and we have a billion dollar endowment and Morehouse doesn’t have anything near a billion dollars and like how do we start to make the endowments at HBCUs be strong enough so that these things don’t have to be momentary gifts, but can actually be like a part of the experience for everybody.
Brittany Packnett: Well, and I think the other real question here, right, is just debt-free college for everyone, when we’re moving even beyond endowments and private giving. This was not only an incredible gesture but one that I think is a challenge to the entire country, is a challenge to recognize that all of our young people deserve to enter that next phase of their life without the restrictions and constrictions of student loan debt because so many people forget that for young people of color in this country, especially if they are first-generation college students, they are often responsible for supporting family financially. They are sending money home. They are helping take care of parents. They are doing all of these things with that very first paycheck and as a lot of us know, those very first paychecks usually are not very big and if you are having to help out your family, pay for your own life and pay back student debt, that can be incredibly, incredibly challenging. It’s a really powerful example of how philanthropy can look very different. I talked about this on Twitter for a while, but often people only give institutional gifts. Robert F. Smith gave a $1.5 million gift to Morehouse the institution prior to his commencement address in which he awarded the student loan forgiveness, which will total about $40 million and that I think is a really powerful example of what’s possible if we can think of institutional giving and direct service in the same light.
Sam Sinyangwe: This raises the bar for other wealthy people that you know, I think in general try to say that they’re making a big impact or are contributing to philanthropy, but you know, often are doing so in ways that are not directly benefiting folks sort of at scale or benefiting folks in a way that is as profound as what Robert F. Smith just demonstrated. And it’s a reminder that one, we should be pushing for systemic change, we should be pushing for a world in which this isn’t a problem in the first place because the federal government covers these costs instead of relying on sort of the charity of whichever billionaire has, at that particular moment, the intention to help out. But, you know, in the meantime, it’s a reminder that you know, there are people right now who could be doing a whole bunch even without the federal government compelling them to and still are not sort of stepping up to the plate to do that. So, you know, we should be putting pressure on them as well just as we’re putting pressure on folks in elected office to cover and to address the systemic issue and I’m also interested in, you know, now that we have candidates on the Democratic side like Elizabeth Warren proposing to cancel student loan debt, you know wholesale, I’m wondering how that actually impacts turn-out, how it impacts decisions about whether or not voting is something that you know, particularly young folks, folks who owe a lot of student loan debt see it in a different way when suddenly, you know, $30,000 of their student loan debt could potentially be wiped out by electing a particular candidate. So I’m hopeful that that will be sort of a motivator and we’ll make politics just that much more real for folks and that much more relevant to turn out.
DeRay Mckesson: The last thing I’ll say is that I didn’t know until reading more about it that this was a surprise to everybody, that he didn’t tell the university he was going to do this before he actually announced it in the speech. So even the $40 million is just a really, really quick estimate because the university hadn’t been prepared. Like they didn’t come up with the numbers beforehand to match the announcement. So I thought that was wild. I was like, okay.
Brittany Packnett: That is some serious wealth to be like, to literally be up there and write a blank check in front of the entire world. That is…wow.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, you’re listening to “Pod Save the People.” Stay tuned, there’s more to come.
Brittany Packnett: Hey y’all. So I am here to share a clip of something I am super excited about: my very first Ted Talk! I gave this talk on confidence and a lot of you might be asking with everything that you work on and think about and talk about on this podcast and do in the world, why confidence? It’s because I actually fully believe that confidence is a revolutionary choice, especially for people who grow up in marginalized circumstances, but we live in a society that doesn’t always encourage confidence. I believe that confidence is the key that can unlock the door to so much else and it’s an important building block. So that’s why I gave that talk on confidence and that’s why I hope that you’ll give it a listen, that you’ll share it with your friends and share it all over your social media. You can watch the full talk online at Ted’s website and you can hear the full talk and other ideas from Ted on TED Talks Daily, wherever you listen to podcasts.
Brittany Packnett [Ted Talk]: Without confidence we get stuck and when we get stuck we can’t even get started. Instead of getting mired in what can get in our way, confidence invites us to perform with certainty. We all operate a little differently when we’re sure we can win versus if we just hope we will, and this can be a helpful check. If you don’t have enough confidence, it could be because you need to readjust your goal. If you have too much confidence, it could be because you’re not rooted in something real. Not everyone lacks confidence. We make it easier in this society for some people to gain confidence because they fit our preferred archetype of leadership. We reward confidence in some people and we punish confidence in others and all the while, far too many people are walking around every single day without it. For some of us, confidence is a revolutionary choice and it would be our greatest shame to see our best ideas go unrealized and our brightest dreams go unreached all because we lacked the engine of confidence. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
Clint Smith: So for my news, I want to talk about how last week the College Board, which as you know, does the SAT and a bunch of the sort of standardized tests that are necessary for college and graduate school entrance, they announced that there will be a new rating in their system, which is widely being referred to as an adversity score of between one and a hundred on students’ test results.
So the company is using a number of environmental factors that influence students’ home and school life, which include neighborhood crime rates, housing values and vacancies, the community’s average educational attainment, poverty levels and they use these factors to calculate someone’s clinical disadvantage level, which is again scaled from zero to a hundred and it’s based on the Census data from each student’s neighborhood, which is another reason why the Census is so important and we’ll talk about that more as we continue to get closer to that. So scores above 50 points indicate that students have had to navigate more obstacles than average to get an education or to have access to college while scores below 50 represent this idea that students have enjoyed more advantages, more privileges than a lot of their peers. So while students don’t necessarily see or know their score, admission officers will be able to see a sort of environmental context dashboard that breaks down all of these factors into the score. The rating, it should be said will not effect the students’ test scores and will only reported to the college admission officers as part of the sort of larger package of data that each test taker has as part of the admissions process. Many admissions offices do holistic admissions already and a lot of them look at high school profiles as a means of trying to do their own version of this disadvantage score so to speak. And the high school profile includes a description of the student body curricular offerings that are provided by the high school that accompanies a student application and tries to get a sense of like, is this a high-poverty school? Is this a school that’s integrated or segregated or where does the sort of larger community ecosystem socioeconomically, racially look like for that school? But school profiles don’t include information about students’ home neighborhoods, and for example, specifically don’t capture students who commute into wealthier areas and attend well-resourced schools, but then they might live in a neighborhood with high crime, eviction rates and home vacancies, right? So like, if you’re judging someone based on their school profile, you can have a kid from a poor background who’s going to super wealthy school, but he buses in or gets driven in or what have you and so that piece about their lives specifically is not being captured by looking at that school’s profile in terms of trying to calculate what they’ve had to overcome. One of the most notable aspects of the disadvantage score is that there is no explicit mention of race. The scoring system is mainly focused on capturing students’ economic reality. But as we know about socioeconomic realities, poverty rates and property values have been deeply affected by a history of racist public policy and the score will likely capture some of the economic disadvantages that fall hardest on people of color. And this is significant and this is also purposeful on College Board’s, and because we are hopefully not but potentially entering a, you know, this case going through the court system right now in which Harvard is being sued saying that they are discriminating against Asian American applicants and it’s really exists as a challenge to affirmative action at large. College Board and other places are beginning to imagine what a post-affirmative action world might look like and try to get a sense of what students need the most help and whether it be along the lines of socioeconomic status or race, if we are put in a position where we are no longer able to consider race specifically as a means of admission. And so lots of interesting stuff here. I’ll say, you know, for me this is an interesting step and I think it’s a good step. It obviously is not enough and obviously is not a substitute for affirmative action, but I think that it is a good thing to be thinking about people’s sense of disadvantage. I think it’s an important conversation to be having and I hope that as we learn more about the program, it continues to be reworked and tweaked and interrogated to make it work best for the mission that it’s espousing.
Sam Sinyangwe: I also wonder, you know, as we’re thinking about neighborhood factors, you know, there are factors that are just not being captured. They’re not being measured at scale in a way that would permit this type of analysis or would permit being incorporated into a score like this and I’m thinking mostly about wealth, because you know the metrics that we use for wealth tend to come from a national survey from the Census, the survey of income and program participation, which surveys up to 50,000 people a year but is not a broad enough survey in many cases to permit sort of this Census tract level or even neighborhood level analysis. So it couldn’t really be incorporated into this score and so thinking about what are some of those other factors that we should be measuring in a way that we could incorporate this at sort of a micro level and then also thinking about the impact of gentrification, right? You know, knowing that for many communities of color there is gentrification happening particularly in larger cities, and so, you know folks who may be coming from more affluent backgrounds into communities of color would still benefit from this type of a score because they’re in communities that would essentially have a higher adversity score and I’m wondering how colleges take that into account in making decisions.
Brittany Packnett: You know, we talk all the time on here about truly radical solutions that upend systems. A truly radical solution that upends systems is actually college admissions processes looking beyond standardized tests to the point that potentially they may not even exist, especially given the roots of so many standardized tests are actually based in attempting to keep students of color and Jewish students out of higher education. That said, this is still the place where we’re in now and we both have to be looking for what’s possible in the long term and what’s necessary in the short-term. What’s necessary in the short term is that context is actually weighted throughout the entire college admissions process. Context matters, context matters, context matters. We cannot get away from that fact and that doesn’t mean that we are pitying students that are coming from disadvantaged circumstances. That doesn’t mean that we are saying that they are less capable. What it does mean is that we are acknowledging the additional hurdles and burdens that they have overcome to even get to that point and that the resiliency that is developed from those things is actually an advantage in higher education.
DeRay Mckesson: So the head of the SAT, his quote in explaining this was, “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.” And they put out a lot of data that backs up the score distributions by wealth and race and the disparities are not just clear now, but they’ve been clear for a long time.
It’s interesting because the right like really lost their mind about this and even some people on the left frankly. When King talks about like the danger of the white liberal, I’m always reminded when like the rubber meets the road. It’s like, that’s when you see people’s true colors come out and there are a lot of white liberals who were like, this is so bad, I can’t believe this would happen. And let me just go through some of the things they said. One thing that I saw was this idea that like, what adversity have 17-year-olds faced, like how could you even have an adversity score for teenagers and you’re like, that’s so much privilege to even utter something like that that like so many people have like overcome the most incredible odds to get to high school graduation, and that the context actually really does matter. There were some people who were like, we can’t believe that the formula is not public. Mind you everything about this test has been secret for a long time, you know, I’ve been annoyed about how we come up with the questions for a long time and now suddenly people are like, everything needs to be public. And then there are people who say that like school and neighborhood data shouldn’t be used, that everything should be just the person’s data. But like, again people don’t live absent of schools and neighborhoods so like, that has to be a part of it. I’m also reminded of how little reporting has gone in to show that 50 schools actually already participated in the pilot before they made this announcement. So schools like Yale, schools like Pomona, like already participated in this, already used the data to help them think of decisions and have been a part of the process to push this forward. I’m hopeful because it is true that like, you see some students in really hard neighborhoods do really well. We know the test is biased, the test has been biased for a long time and trying to think about how to account for that and ways that like set people up to be successful in college. The last thing I’ll say is that there a lot of schools are don’t even use the SAT anymore. Bowdoin got rid of the SAT as a requirement a long time ago and a lot of schools are doing that because they realize that the grades in the high school are actually in some cases a better predictor of success than the SAT. So like if you’ve been successful in your school, that that actually measures the context in a way that the SAT has not been able to heretofore.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, you’re listening to “Pod Save the People.” Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come.
Brittany Packnett: So I want to talk about what happened on April the 18th. On that day, Ben Carson who is of course the Secretary of HUD, quietly announced that he would reinforce and expand a 1980 law that states that undocumented immigrants are ineligible from financial assistance when it comes to public housing. Again, he announced that he’s going to reinforce that law and make it even more strict. I found this out because my friend and incredible reporter Jamil Smith wrote it up in Rolling Stone. So what does this mean? According to HUD’s numbers, there are about 1.2 million households that are living in public housing units. The tightening of this law, according to HUD once again, could affect anywhere between 22,000 and 32,000 households. Why is this significant? Because the way in which Carson is proposing tightening the law will mean that it applies not only to the heads of those households, but to any dependents living in those households. We’re talking about 55,000 children that could be made homeless by the tightening of this law. Carson knows this because that 55,000 number came directly from HUD’s own numbers. So I want to encourage everybody A) to know that this is happening right under our noses, B) to actually go and take a look at this article because there are some important links to the actual officially published text of the new rule from Carson and a link to public comment. Public comment on rules and regulations that are put forward by departments in the United States government often have a public comment period and a lot of people think that public comment is reserved only for organizations, NGOs, nonprofits, etc. Public comment is legitimately public comment. So there is a link in there that links you to where you can place your own public comment about this rule and that will be open until July 9th. But let it be said again, 55,000 children will be put at risk of homelessness if this rule takes effect. Carson knows it and doesn’t care.
Clint Smith: With stories like this, I’m always left asking why housing isn’t a guaranteed right in the same way that education is, right? Like so every child in this country is guaranteed a right to public education per the 1982 Plyler v. Doe ruling whether they’re documented or undocumented, it doesn’t matter. It’s like every child in this country has access to public education. But we don’t afford children or people the same right to guaranteed housing. I think it’s just a reminder of how arbitrary it is and how unjust it is that anyone is not guaranteed access to housing regardless of their immigration status undermines the language used and posited in the Plyler case because if someone is homeless, it compromises obviously their ability to make the most of their education that they’re supposed to be receiving as a constitutional right in the first place and so I’m often reminded of the sort of arbitrary nature of like what is understood as like a human right or a civil right or a constitutional right at the expense of other things that undermine that very thing and I think that tens of thousands of people potentially being kicked out of their homes is an example of us not taking…you know, we’re in the midst of this larger conversation and we talked about this last week about pro-life or pro-choice and what is pro-life. But like how can you be pro-life if you’re not concerned about the lives of children as they exist in the world as children, you know, and so are you pro-birth or are you like actually pro-life in that you care about making sure that a child isn’t homeless on the street because of the sort of arbitrary implementation of some random series of rules?
Sam Sinyangwe: It should have been the headline news instead of the Mueller report, right? This is something that is going to directly impact people’s lives at scale.
And as a reminder also of when you think about Donald Trump, right, and the fact that he really got started in his career through housing discrimination, right? In the 1970s, that was what he began practicing in real estate in New York City and to think about now that he is in this position of power, he’s essentially trying to implement this strategy at scale through Ben Carson, right? And you know, we can talk a lot about Ben Carson and the role that Ben Carson as a Black man in that position, the unique intentionality with which he is implementing policies like this in many ways that are discriminating against people of color. But ultimately, this is a reflection of this administration writ large.
DeRay Mckesson: One of the things I didn’t know was happening under good old Ben Carson is that Department of Housing and Urban Development was advising lenders to deny DACA recipients access to FHA-backed loans. So Buzzfeed had reported on this in December, there have been some hearings. Ben Carson has been asked about it. Ben Carson said he didn’t know anything about it and BuzzFeed just published an update last week where lenders are still getting advice and emails and conversations with Carson staff that DACA recipients are not eligible for loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration. When Carson was asked about this in December, he literally said “he had asked around after reading the BuzzFeed story” and “that no one was aware of any changes that had been made to policy whatsoever,” adding that it was “a surprise to him if DACA recipients were being turned down.” It’s like you don’t even know what’s happening at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben and you’re supposed to be in charge, that’s frightening. You think about, these are the things that like reporters found out about, what are all the things that we don’t know anything about? That DACA recipients are being denied government insured loans is a problem. Like, we created DACA so these things wouldn’t happen. It made me think about like all the other FOIA requests we should be filing and it also made me think about the cleanup that’s going to have to happen when this Administration gets out of office. Like the next set of people, because hopefully this guy’s gone in 2020, the next set of people, it’ll be a long road to clean all this stuff up.
Sam Sinyangwe: So my news is an article that just came out in The Appeal called “Incarceration is always a policy failure.” So this is really focused on Rikers and the push to close Rikers. If you haven’t heard, there’s a proposal to close Rikers over the next several years and open up four new jails in the city of New York to send the folks who otherwise would have gone to Rikers to. As you can imagine, this is incredibly disheartening and controversial and a lot of people, myself included, don’t want more jails to be constructed. The whole point of closing Rikers was to substantially lower the jail population. To be fair, you know, they have proposed to lower the jail population somewhat from about 7,500 today to about 5,000 people by 2027. But you know, ultimately that’s still 5,000 people at any given time in jail in one city. And so what this article looks at is an example of what happens when you actually do close jails and don’t just reopen other ones to house the same people. In particular, they look at Cincinnati which in 2008, closed an 822-bed jail facility called the Queen’s Gate Correctional Facility and what the researchers from University of Cincinnati found when examining the impact of that jail closure…again, that closure closed about a third of the city’s available jail space. So they wonder, you know what happens when you just have one-third fewer jail beds. Like how does that impact the way in which policing operates in a city given that the police know that even if they arrest people, they ultimately won’t have any place to put people if they continue to arrest as many people as they were arresting before? And so what they found was that once the jail closed in 2008, from 2008 to 2014, there was a substantial drop in crime. Right? A drop in violent crime by about 39%, a drop in property crime by 19%. So the arguments that you know, opponents of these things often say is that well if we’re not putting as many people in jail, there’s going to be a lot of crime. That didn’t happen. But what also was interesting was that you saw a market decline in arrests. Arrest drop even more than the drop in crime, right? So you had a drop in felony arrests by 41%, a drop in misdemeanor arrests by 33%. And so what’s fascinating about this is, you know, when they explore, you know police department and sort of what was undergirding that change in arrest rates, what they find is that the police began prioritizing the types of offenses in which they were actually arresting people for and sending them to jail. And they were less likely to actually engage in the type of policing of low-level offenses called broken windows policing or zero tolerance policing than they had been before, and essentially had to change their policing strategy to actually not be arresting and incarcerating as many people in direct response to the fact that the jail had closed. So this is really, really important for a number of reasons. Number one because the sky didn’t fall, right? So it’s a great example of how I think oftentimes fear-based politics around decareceration, which tend to argue that any type of reduction in incarceration will lead to some sort of increase in crime. Like that didn’t materialize at all, crime actually decreased. But what was also interesting is to see that what we do on sort of the back end of the criminal justice system or what happens with jails and prisons actually impacts the front end in terms of policing and how communities are policed. And so, you know, we often talk about policing and mass incarceration almost as like separate conversations or separate issues, but this is just another example of how closely related they actually are.
Clint Smith: So I work at a jail. I work at DC Jail. And I think that when people hear articles like this, I think the temptation can be, oh like we definitely would want less people in jail. But like, what do you do with all the people committing crimes? What do you do? There has to be some place and I understand the impulse in many ways. I have had that impulse before, but I think while working in jail and being engaged in this sort of research and literature around what leads people to jail in the first place, it just is a reminder that again as I talk about all the time, criminality is a subjective phenomenon. There is no static objective notion of what constitutes as criminal behavior and as we’ve talked about on this show time, time and time again, what constitutes as a crime in one state might not be a crime in another state. What’s a felony in one state might not be a felony in another state. It might depend on if you stole something that’s five dollars more expensive than something else. What’s a violent crime in one state is non-violent crime in another state and so animating this discussion has to be a deep understanding and reflection on the fact that like, what we incarcerate people for and when we put people in jail for is often arbitrary, is often subjective and is a decision made by individual agents who have the power of the state behind them that is not following any sort of consistent means of implementation. And I say that because there can be a different set of decisions made about what things people are put in jail for and what they’re not and I think that all of this just necessitates a sort of reimagining and reinvestment in the things that will make it so that one, I think not being so quick to punish people and put people in jail for things that don’t represent any risk to public safety, but also investing the resources that we might invest in like, several new jails into preventive programs that we know work.
Brittany Packnett: The title of this for me was actually the most provocative point, that incarceration is always a policy failure. The fact that someone lands in jail is representative of a failure of usually multiple policies that created the kind of conditions that would leave someone incarcerated in the first place. And I’m not just talking about social conditions. I’m also talking about economic conditions. I’m also talking about racial conditions. I’m also talking about educational conditions and I’m also acknowledging that there are lots of things that people are arrested for that should not put them in jail, and that some people are committing crimes that were absolutely preventable and therefore shouldn’t be in jail. And so this just again reinforces the need for social services that to your point, Clint, prevent people from being incarcerated in the first place and that can redirect people who might do the wrong thing because of the circumstances that they’re in to the social services that will actually push forward a stronger society altogether.
DeRay Mckesson: Like you, Clint, I’m often around people who push me on the notion of like well, no new jail seems really aggressive, but like smaller or less jails makes a lot more sense. And one of the things that I try and do to like help process that is to ask people to think more deeply about who do we incarcerate, like the buckets of people. And the Prison Policy Institute has a great resource that is called Does Our County Really Need a Bigger Jail? that came out in May of 2018. And these are just four sort of big issues that they break out that I thought are interesting. First, they asked the question of like, how many people are in there for substance abuse and mental health disorders? And again, we know that jail is not a place to go for recovery from addiction. It’s not suited to do that or to help with mental health disorders. How many people are there because they can’t afford it? Again, jail shouldn’t be a holding place for people who are poor. How many jails are holding spaces for other authorities? I didn’t know until I was reading up that 84% of jails in the country actually hold people who are incarcerated for another agency.
So like ICE. And then how many people are there for probation and parole violations? And when you take those four buckets alone, you actually realize how the number of people who are incarcerated, who are deemed to be sort of threats to safety or some sort of physical harm, which most people believe is everybody in jail, is actually really, really low and this idea of like what do we do with the end of Riker’s has really made me think about like, how we categorize people and like who is actually incarcerated. I’m hopeful that like we’ll see the end of mass incarceration in our lifetime. We’ve seen other things happen even quicker, like the biggest rewrite of the tax code in a generation happened in five days. So I have a lot of hope.
So my article is titled how the war on drugs kept Black men out of college. There’s a new study that came out to show that the probability that Black men will enroll in college declined due to the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which was the beginning of the War on Drugs. It was written by UC Berkeley professor Tolani Britton and it is said to be the first to establish a link between the 80s drug laws and college achievement. It seems to be a small statistical decline. But one of the things though that reading about it made me think of was about college enrollment before the War on Drugs, and that’s what I didn’t know anything about. So I didn’t know that from 1980 to 1985, college enrollment among Black men ages 18 to 24 grew slightly faster than it did for white peers. Like, I just had never really thought about like this idea that college enrollment for Black men was actually on the increase and then we can see that with the War on Drugs, there was a steady decline. Or that’s the beginning of when a decline happened. One of the other things that I had heard about but just hadn’t spent a lot of time understanding was just how much the ’94 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act did damage. So this Act of 1994, signed by Clinton, made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, which are grants for low-income people to help pay for college, including college programs specifically offered in prisons. And then in ’98 the Aid Elimination Amendment to the Higher Education Act denied any federal aid to student who were convicted on drug-related charges while receiving federal aid. And in 2015, as you probably know, Pell Grants were experimentally reintroduced for some prisoners. And then I also didn’t know that prior convictions can block students from admission to college. I forgot that like when I applied to college, they asked if I had a criminal history and like I just forgot all about that. And we know that like prison education and Clint, I’m excited to hear you talk about this because you do this work, has been found to reduce reincarceration by about 13 percentage points and increase the odds of employment by 13 percentage points. But today, only 6% of incarcerated people have access to college programs at their institution. So I say all this to say that like, if the goal is actually rehabilitation, if the goal is for people to be equipped with skills to make different choices and have different opportunities when they get out of jail and prison, we actually have to invest in that and like, education has to be part of that solution. And also we have to remember that we got in this place by a set of policymakers’ explicit choices. It was explicit to deny people who are incarcerated access to college education. It was a conscious choice to set up an entire apparatus that treated drug addiction as a crime and not as a public health concern or as a disease and that we are still living with those consequences. So one of the reasons why I don’t want one of the 70-year-old white men running for president to be president is that those were the people who were around during that time who fed into this logic, who believed it, who participated in making these explicit choices that we are still trying to recover from. They can be a part of the solution, I’m excited about them being around and helping to dig us out from the mess that they helped to create, but I think it’s clear that they shouldn’t be leading in this time.
Sam Sinyangwe: What’s interesting about this is what was also in that 1986 law, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, was that’s the law that actually established the 100 to 1 crack cocaine disparity in legislation. So it was not the 1994 crime bill that created the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. It was this 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and speaking about that, there’s actually a statement from Joe Biden from 2008 in which he says, “Senators Byrd, Dole and I led the effort to enact the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which established the current 100 to 1 disparity. Our intentions were good, but much of our information was bad. Each of the myths upon which we based the sentencing disparity has since been dispelled or altered.” And then he goes on to talk about the myths that crack and powder cocaine were somehow different substances or had different levels of addictiveness, but he hasn’t yet talked about this other impact on college access, which I’m hopeful that can become a part of the conversation because oftentimes when we talk about the legacy of many of these legislators who some of which are running for president today, it is important to note that it’s not just the 100 to 1 crack powder cocaine disparity. It’s not even just the 1994 crime bill. There were a host of other impacts of these decisions, impacts that you know, were in the space of education, in the space of housing, in access to housing for people who had a drug convictions. So like all of these different impacts should be part of this conversation and ultimately, you know politicians that want to become president should be held accountable to answering how they got those things wrong as well and how they would do things differently.
Clint Smith: I’ll just add that 95% of folks who are incarcerated end up being released back into society and the article shares some numbers that says that prison education has been found to reduce re-incarceration by 13 percentage points and increase the odds of employment by 13 percentage points. I think for some people those might sound small but I think that people need to remember that the likelihood of somebody getting employment after they are incarcerated would be far higher if there weren’t such profound discrimination of formerly incarcerated folks in the workplace. Right? So, I think we 100% should do everything we can to ensure that people who are incarcerated, whether they are serving a two-year sentence or a life sentence, and I work predominantly with folks who are serving life sentences and thinking about how we can conceive of what the purpose of education is for people who might not ever be released, right?
So kind of moving beyond sort of vocational utility or the sort of utilitarian premise of like what the purpose of education is and thinking about how education shapes a person and how it shapes a community and what the purpose of education in prison looks like for building community of people who were sentenced to die in prison. But at 95% of people who do end up going back into society and education has to be part of a sort of larger social project and a larger social commitment to ensure that folks are not going back into a society that is committed to making life as difficult for them as possible. Education cannot exist on its own. We can’t just say let’s give Pell Grants to all the people in prison and then there will be no more mass incarceration because they’ll all go out and get amazing jobs and be engineers and what have you, it has to be part of a larger sort of unlearning and peeling back of the preconceived notions we have of incarcerated people, who they are, what they deserve and that education alongside other public policy initiatives to ensure their successful reentry into society, can do a world of good but education is just one step of many and by itself, it is not enough.
Brittany Packnett: Essentially what we’ve discussed on this episode is that if you were able to evade the incarceration that comes towards so many Black men for a whole host of reasons that we talk about all the time on this podcast, and you are able to actually get into college that you have to go through a series of tests and admissions policies that are already biased against you, that people are finally starting to take steps forward on dismantling that bias, but the bias certainly isn’t dismantled altogether and if you make it beyond there, that you are often taking out the kind of debt that can be absolutely devastating for the rest of your life. When we think about how people have to thread the needle, their entire lives – Black men in particular, but marginalized people generally – to actually overcome, to actually create lives that are sustainable, to create lives that are healthy, to create lives that can be well funded and where people’s families are well supported, like we’ve covered all of that in this episode and so I just encourage all of us to think about the ways in which it is never just one moment, one policy, one choice or one decision that can affect an entire life. It is always a series of systems that people face throughout their lives that make the greatest impact.
DeRay Mckesson: That’s the news. Don’t go anywhere more “Pod Save the People” is coming.
DeRay Mckesson: And here’s my interview with Danielle Sered, author of “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair” and executive director of Common Justice. I loved, loved, loved our conversation. A quick heads up for those of you listening with children: there’s some cursing in this interview.
Danielle Sered, thanks so much for joining us today on “Pod Save the People.”
Danielle Sered: Thank you so much for having me.
DeRay Mckesson: Now we are here to talk about your new book, “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair.” So much of the work that people talk about in public is like, how do we deal with the nonviolent offenders? Like I feel like that takes up so much of the conversation. Can you help us think about what do we do with people who commit violent offenses? What does that look like?
Danielle Sered: That’s all we think about Common Justice and it’s really critical that we think about it because more than half of the people locked up in this country are locked up for crimes of violence, which means we’ll never see transformative reductions to the scale of incarceration in America unless we take on violence. But even more than that, the reason culturally, not just numerically that we’ll pick prisons over schools and prisons over roads and prisons over hospitals and other things that meet our basic needs is because we’ve been fed this story about some imagined monstrous other, like someone who’s not human quite the way we are, who doesn’t feel pain quite the way we do. That story is as old and frankly as racist as this country, that it is almost always a story about a person of color, usually a man of color and that image that we’ve invoked for hundreds and hundreds of years to justify a huge range of policies, not just mass incarceration, is at the heart of it. And until we come for that story, then all the incremental changes we make to nonviolent offenses are never going to get at the root of why we have signed up for this mass experiment in caging in a way that we have put more of our own people in cages than any nation ever in all of human history. That’s not because of drug crimes or theft. It’s because of how the stories that bolster structural racism continue to persist throughout our country. And so we know that we have to come for them and we have to come for them in part with things that can take the place of prison and not just shrink it.
DeRay Mckesson: Like what?
Danielle Sered: So Common Justice is one example. So we use restorative justice to address crimes like stabbings, shootings, gunpoint robberies. So in cases where that kind of harm happens, if and only if the survivors of that violence agree, the people who committed it are diverted from the court into a restorative justice process where after extensive preparation after an intense violence intervention curriculum with us, they sit with the people they hurt with their support people and a process where they acknowledge the harm that was done and reach agreements about how they can make things as right as possible. Those agreements include everything from restitution and community service to getting a job and apologizing to the people who were harmed to speaking in their neighborhoods to other young people to put them on the right path. Our responsible parties, which is what we call what other people call offenders, if they complete the entirety of those agreements, which usually amount to at least 40 hours a week of just extraordinarily hard work of making things right, then they don’t go to prison and the felonies are removed from their record. And in the meantime, we work with the people who were hurt to help them come through what happened to them and in their lives generally. So far, our failure rate is less than 7%. I challenge anyone who can find a prison with numbers that good.
DeRay Mckesson: A couple things that I’ve heard people say to criticize restorative justice. One is how do you respond to this notion of like, it lets the responsible parties off the hook, right? That instead of actually having a real consequence, all they have to do is have a series of conversations. Like what do you say to people who say that?
Danielle Sered: So there’s two things. You know, one, for us, it’s not conversations. There are some restorative justice programs where it sort of ends at the apology. But as I described, they’re reaching agreements about how to fix it that the survivors actually get to shape and those agreements are extensive and demanding and substantial. But even more than that, I think we overestimate what punishment requires of someone. Punishment is passive. It doesn’t require me to do anything. All I have to do be punished is to not escape whatever somebody else is trying to inflict on me. Accountability is different. Accountability requires I acknowledge what I did. I acknowledge its impact, I express genuine remorse. I make things as right as possible, ideally in a way defined by those I hurt, and I do the really hard labor of becoming a person who will never cause that harm ever again. Like, I think about one of our early participants who had been gang-involved since the time he was eight years old. He had seen more violence than anyone should, survived more violence than anyone should, caused more violence than anyone should. And he went through this restorative justice process with the person he hurt, this younger boy and that boy’s mother and had to face them, had to face their rage and their sadness and their anger and understand the full extent of what he’d done. Left with this extraordinary long list of commitments he would have to keep in order to earn back his freedom after the harm he had caused. And after the process was over, we were leaving for the night and he asked if he could stay for another minute and I asked him why. He said I just don’t want to go back outside until my hands stop shaking. Now this is a kid who I’m sure could hold a gun steady as day. And he said to me, “You know for all the things I’ve done and everything done to me, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real apology before. Do you think I did all right?” And I said, because it was true, I think you did great. And he said, “Pardon my language, but that’s the scariest shit I’ve ever done.” There is something in actually facing the human consequences of our choices that is far harder than passively sustaining some kind of harm or violence and punishment for what we’ve done.
DeRay Mckesson: You’ve made the perfect case. How do people get the privilege of restorative justice and it seems like a privilege in this context right now?
Danielle Sered: So Common Justice remains the only alternative to incarceration for serious violent offenses in the adult courts in America. There’s other work in the juvenile courts. There’s a lot of work for lower level offenses, but it is true that access to something like this is really rare. That access is possible because the district attorneys in Brooklyn and the Bronx – Brooklyn for a decade, Bronx for almost two years now – have agreed to do this with us. That makes them outliers among their peers and in my view, demonstrates that their commitment to safety is far greater than their commitment to convictions and at the end of the day, a prosecutor should be measured more by whether they produce safety and justice than by how many people they can put behind bars.
DeRay Mckesson: How do people get to you? What does that look like? I’m just curious.
Danielle Sered: So cases are referred by prosecutors, by defense attorneys, by community members. Sometimes survivors themselves will call us and say like look, I want this person to face the consequence but I don’t think them going to prison will make any kind of difference or do any kind of good. When that happens, we first have a conversation with the District Attorney’s office to secure their consent and then we reach out to the survivor, to the victim of the crime. And we say to them do you want the person who hurt you to go to prison or do you want them in Common Justice. Now it matters to remember that fewer than half of victims call the police in the first place. That alone should teach us something. More than half of victims prefer nothing to almost everything that system has on offer. For a system that claims to work in the name of those victims, that’s a pretty bad result. After that 50%, another half of those will drop out before the grand jury. So they’ll call the police, but the case won’t make it or they will divest from the process in those very first couple steps. That remaining 25% are arguably the jailingest victims you’ll find. They are the people who are proceeding in a process likely to result in the incarceration of the person who hurt them. They are the people we call and say do you want that person in prison or want them with us? And 90% choose to have them in Common Justice. 90%. The thing that’s really happening is that survivors are pragmatic, that there are two things we can’t stand when we’ve been hurt. We can’t stand the idea of it happening to us again, and we can’t stand the idea of it happening to someone else. So no matter how much rage we feel and how much fear we feel and how much pain we feel, when we are actually given a choice between two options, we will always choose the option that we think is likely to produce safety for us and others and there are very few people it’s harder to persuade that incarceration produces safety than people who live in neighborhoods where incarceration is common. Because they live with the failure of prisons day in and day out. That promise that prisons make, that they will make people safer and that prisons do not keep, they pay the consequence of that failure. And so some people choose this kind of option out of mercy, but the vast majority choose it out of pragmatism and self-interest.
DeRay Mckesson: I’d love to know, what are some misconceptions that you’ve seen in the work that you engage in?
Danielle Sered: So one is the one I just shared, which is that doing something other than prison requires forgiveness and mercy, when in fact, it just requires pragmatism. One of the misconceptions is that prison works to produce safety. And even a sort of step below it is that prison doesn’t work to produce safety. Prison’s actually worse than that. Prison produces violence. So, you know in Common Justice, we’re in the business of reducing violence and we know that while violence is driven by broad structural factors, like inequity, the lack of decent schools or decent housing or any of those things, what produces violence on an individual level are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. That means we have baked into our core responses to violence exactly the things that generate it. That’s not what a country that actually wants to be safe does.
DeRay Mckesson: Is it possible to scale up the work you do to other places?
Danielle Sered: Absolutely. Right now, prison produces its own business, right? It punishes violence with a thing that creates violence and that creates a cycle that allows it to continue to grow. If we actually have responses to violence that reduce violence, then we need fewer and fewer things that we do in response. There are actually a few interventions that are more expensive than prison, just as there are a few that are less effective. But the thing that really matters is not just to think about can we go to the scale of prison, but really like can we reduce the need, right? Can there be less harm in our society? And then can we meet the harm that remains with increasingly effective solutions?
DeRay Mckesson: Have you seen restorative justice have an impact outside of the prison system? So like in schools and after school programs, like have you seen it be successful in other places where harm happens that don’t necessarily lead to incarceration?
Danielle Sered: Yeah, I mean there’s a million things that call themselves restorative justice. Like at one point, saying restorative justice became a way to get some little scraps of funding and then everyone started calling everything restorative justice. So the variety of things that are called restorative justice run the gamut from being really transformative to like, extremely not transformative. But the best of those things absolutely. Like the work Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth has done in the unified school system in Oakland is incredible, like driving down violence, driving down suspensions, driving down explosions, driving up graduation rates and grades. It’s an amazing set of outcomes sustained over a really long period of time. And then some of the places restorative justice is most effective is outside of systems, is when in places like some of the hubs they’ve established in Chicago where people aren’t engaging any formal system and instead are engaging each other directly in addressing the harm that arises between them without calling any outside formal government agency at all.
DeRay Mckesson: Is there anybody you’re excited about with regard to 2020? And if not or if so what should people be looking for? Like what questions should listeners be asking when they decide on the candidates to support?
Danielle Sered: There is I think an understanding that having a generally expressed progressive criminal justice platform is favorable and polls well now and so most of them are doing that, but whether that’ll reach beyond nonviolent offenses, like whether that will actually address the racial inequities that are at the core of how we do punishment in this country, whether people will be able and willing to take political hits to do what’s right, I think has not become apparent about any of them yet. And so I think the thing we have to look for in those candidates is a degree of specificity. We shouldn’t be fooled by the broad generalized rhetoric that the criminal justice system is too big and needs reforming.
But that’s no longer enough for us to believe that that is someone who will actually lead us out of the enormous immoral mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into over these last decades.
DeRay Mckesson: Another sexy topic right now has been prosecutors. A lot of people are like, prosecutors can be a key lever for change, an unleveraged part of the criminal justice system. What’s your take on that?
Danielle Sered: I mean, it’s unquestionably true. Like, prosecutors have enough discretion that if they wanted to end mass incarceration tomorrow collectively, they could do it. Right, so they have an extraordinary amount of power and being blind to that power or presuming the power is in the state house rather than the state’s attorney’s office is always going to be a mistake. I think the best way for us to predict which of these prosecutors who are running on more progressive platforms are really going to deliver on change is not based on the promises they make. I find promises are not usually a great way to predict what politicians will do, but rather on who their base is. So some of these new progressive prosecutors have won by persuading the same group of likely voters to vote for them instead of their predecessors. Others of these prosecutors have won by animating a whole new base of voters and specifically voters who live in neighborhoods where violence and incarceration are common, like the people whose lives will be at stake in the decisions those prosecutors make. Those prosecutors have a chance to do things that are really extraordinary because they’re answerable to people who know that the status quo is intolerable and it means that their bandwidth for taking risks will be different and greater and it means that their constituents will hold them accountable. Like the best way to predict what a prosecutor will do is to look at who can take them out of office, because that’s who they look at and increasingly when those people are people in communities where violence is common, folks of color who have experienced the harms of incarceration, then the prosecutors looking to those people will increasingly make just choices.
DeRay Mckesson: And there a lot of people in this moment who have fought, they have like challenged, they protested, they’ve called, they’ve emailed and the world hasn’t changed in a way that they have wanted it to or thought it would. What do you say to those people?
Danielle Sered: You know, doing transformative work requires stamina, like these are not short struggles. These are not new struggles. And so for me, like when we’re not losing in the near-term, the thing I do is I zoom in or zoom out. Like I zoom in meaning I look at specific instances of individual transformation in front of me. I get the benefit of a ton of those in my work, but I look at the places where I do see change or I zoom out in terms of both scale and timeline and understand that you know, the arc of history is a slow one. And if anything I think works in a point that we are accelerating not slowing down.
DeRay Mckesson: Last question, question that I ask everybody is what is a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you?
Danielle Sered: I think a lot about one of the elders in my neighborhood growing up who said it’s hard to excite people to fight for a shit sandwich easy on the shit. What I take that to mean in this context is that so often our fight for mass incarceration is for just less of a terrible thing. We’re like this thing is terrible, can we have eight years instead of 15? Can we have five instead of 10? Can we have a misdemeanor instead of a felony? What we have to start to do as a movement is we have to start fighting for the things we want in place of incarceration.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, thank you so much. I learned so much in this conversation. Appreciate you making time to be on the pod and we consider you a Friend of the Pod.
Danielle Sered: Thank you so much. Thanks for what you do.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to “Pod Save the People” this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else and I’ll see you next week.