Gen Z is setting ourselves apart as a generation unapologetically speaking out and taking direct action on the issues that impact us most. We grew up crouching under desks during school shooter drills, experiencing historic climate events, and witnessing an assault on our LGBTQ peers and their rights. In turn, we have made gun control, fighting climate change and standing up for LGBTQ equality a top priority.
But there’s one issue we haven’t fully committed to yet: the injustices in our prisons and criminal justice system.
While many of us might be sheltered from the realities of what goes on in our courts or prison system, we’ve all witnessed police brutality claim the lives of young Black men like Memphis’ Tyre Nichols play out again and again across our social media feeds. But too often, the horror, heartbreak and outrage that follow dissipate before anything changes.
We must move the needle on police violence and recognize that it is an atrocious symptom of a larger disease: a bloated criminal justice system that prioritizes punishment over actually keeping communities safe.
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America has the highest incarceration rate in the world
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Today, the United States holds the title for highest incarceration rate on earth – a dishonor we’ve held longer than most of Generation Z, born between 1997 to 2012, has been alive.
There are nearly 2 million people behind bars and 4 million under other forms of correctional control. Racial disparities run rampant, with people of color more likely to be stopped, arrested, given harsher punishments, serve longer time in prison or on probation. They also face steeper barriers upon release.
Alice Marie Johnson:Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian got me clemency. Second chances aren’t soft on crime.
Rep. Lucy McBath:I lost my son to gun violence. Congress must spare other parents my grief.
Mass incarceration has overcrowded our prisons, contributing to the spread of disease behind bars, poor health outcomes upon release, and a suicide rate for incarcerated people three times higher than the national average. Mass supervision has placed millions into a system that becomes a trapdoor to incarceration rather than a pathway to rehabilitation.
For every dollar spent on prisons, we pay an additional $10 in social costs such as lost wages, increased infant mortality and the generational impacts of having a parent in prison.
I’m among millions whose parent has been incarcerated
When I was just 2 months old, my father was sent to prison. What he really needed was treatment, but instead he was torn away from our family. My 22-year-old mother, who had dropped out of high school, was left with the task of supporting and raising a child all on her own.
We faced periods of housing instability and relied on food stamps while my mom worked multiple jobs trying to build a better future for us. While she was able to overcome the odds for women in her position – eventually graduating from both college and law school while raising me – most families with a loved one sent to prison are not as fortunate.
In the United Sates, more than 5 million kids have a parent who has been incarcerated. These parents are often held in facilities far from their children, making visits impossible and leaving kids without parental support.
Single parents are left with the responsibility of providing for their children, often exacerbating poverty. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to face their own challenges, such as emotional distress, behavioral problems and difficulties in school. They are also more likely to enter into the justice system themselves, perpetuating intergenerational cycles of trauma and incarceration.
Our overgrown criminal justice system is not just separating families. It’s also tearing apart the very fabric of our democracy:
- Felony disenfranchisement, which denies people with convictions the right to vote, locks people out of our democracy entirely, sometimes for life.
- Prison gerrymandering, which occurs when prisoners are counted as residents of the district where they are incarcerated rather than their home district, skews voting power and representation.
- And “Willie Horton politics,” where politicians use fearmongering about crime and racial stereotypes to win elections, is harming Black communities and undermining the principles of equality and fairness that our democracy is built on.
Policing the USA
The worst part of all of this is that our justice system doesn’t actually work at its primary purpose: keeping communities safe. America has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world. People are being locked up then released without any rehabilitation and without making any progress on the underlying causes that led to their crimes in the first place – such as mental health challenges, drug addiction and lack of economic opportunity.
And police misconduct, which too often goes unpunished by both police departments and prosecutors, contributes to growing mistrust between communities and law enforcement, making it harder to effectively solve and prevent crimes.
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What we need is real public safety in our communities – safety that prioritizes proven solutions such as investments in public health resources, youth programs, community violence interventionists and actual rehabilitation that can stop cycles of crime and begin cycles of healing.
My origin story drives my lifelong commitment to fixing this broken system – as it does for many other young people who have felt its impacts directly. But an issue as widespread and systemic as mass incarceration will not be solved by a small community of committed activists. It will take the courage of our entire generation to open America’s eyes to these injustices and work together to demand change.
As Gen Z comes of age, we have a unique opportunity as the youngest and most diverse voters in history to work together – across race, political parties and geographies – to cultivate solutions.
I’ve been inspired to watch the impact that new Rep. Maxwell Frost, 25, poet Amanda Gorman, 24, climate activist Greta Thunberg, 20, and many other generational peers have had. We are leaders, culture shifters, influencers, elected officials and entrepreneurs. We have the power to drive global visibility and change.
I call upon my peers to come together to transform the justice system into one that actually prioritizes the needs of communities and prevents crime and harm from occurring in the first place. We can and should be the generation that finally ends mass incarceration.
Hannah Jackson is a freshman at Penn State University. In 2018, she spoke at the White House Prison Reform Summit. She will deliver remarks at a REFORM Alliance event hosted by Michael Rubin on Wednesday featuring guests Kim Kardashian, Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, Kendall Jenner, Lil Baby, Landon Barker and others. Follow her on Instagram: @hannah_e_jackson_
More from Policing the USA opinion:
Our View:Police should stop making minor traffic stops that too often turn into major tragedies
Cannabis is legal in most of America:But federal laws still block businesses from banks
‘Who are you going to believe?’:When a prison is known as the ‘rape club,’ our justice system has a credibility problem