"Is this who we are now? Is this who we want to be?"
Those were questions first asked by superstar artist Alicia Keys in a Capitol Hill briefing on Nov. 10, 2015, about the alarming state of mass incarceration in the United States. Knowing that the "land of the free" has more people in prison than any other nation in the world, she is now asking those same questions to her millions of fans — and asking them to do something about it.
Her new campaign, #WeAreHere for #JusticeReformNow is a partnership between her organization, We Are Here, and Cut 50, an organization that aims to cut the U.S. prison population in half over the next 10 years. The campaign is asking 1 million people to sign a petition that calls on Congress and the White House to take action now.
The issue of mass incarceration is one that touches on so many devastating challenges within our society.
This complex issue is tied to racism, poverty, and inequality (as those who are incarcerated are overwhelmingly black, brown, and poor and receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts), the economy (the prison system is big business for private companies but costs the nation between $30K-100K a year to incarcerate just one person), as well as the issue that is most important to Keys and her organization: the impact of mass incarceration on children and families.
As she says in the beautiful campaign launch video:
"Too many families — and our communities — are being destroyed by mass incarceration. ... Mothers stripped of their sons, husbands, and fathers. Entire neighborhoods torn apart by the War on Drugs. And families struggling to stay together. We need policy reforms that can keep people out of prison who don't need to be there, and ensure that our justice system helps to heal communities, families, and individuals."
(It is, of course, worth noting that not only men are incarcerated. The number of incarcerated women has also increased at an alarming rate over the past decade.)
But whether we're discussing men or women, mothers or fathers, young or old, fundamentally, the root of the problem is about how society views and treats people who have committed crimes, especially nonviolent ones.
Can we really afford the social costs of throwing away countless citizens for drug addiction, desperate responses to poverty, and youthful mistakes? Or are there better, more just, and effective ways to hold people accountable and keep our communities safe?
Criminal-justice-reform advocate Bryan Stevenson, in his famous TED talk and must-read bestselling book, "Just Mercy," certainly thinks so. He believes that the only way to heal our society and end the obviously ineffective cycle of crime and punishment is to stop abandoning broken people, which is an approach that ultimately breaks more people. Instead, we must develop a criminal justice system based on rehabilitation, mercy, and solutions to the root causes of crime. But what does that look like?
What do advocates suggest we do right now?
Well, for starters, Alicia Keys' #WeAreHere for #JusticeReformNow campaign is urging 1 million people to sign a petition demanding Congress and the White House pass meaningful criminal justice reforms before the close of the year. She joins the thousands of other Americans who are asking for laws that do three things:
1. Send fewer people into a broken system that often destroys lives and separates families.
2. Invest in education, rehabilitation, and treatment rather than incarceration and punishment.
3. Address economic, civil, and social barriers to re-entry that can make it difficult for fathers and mothers to participate fully in society once they return home.
There are several bills proposed in Congress, like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the SAFE Justice Act, that address some of these concerns. But public support is necessary to encourage swift action.
Check out her powerful video below and learn more about the campaign at Cut50.org.