Vesla M. Weaver in The Boston Review (Photograph: Thomas Hawk):
I met Renard in an unadorned room in a Catholic Charities building in New Orleans. Twenty years old, with a broad smile under chubby cheeks dotted with freckles, Renard is one of two dozen or so men and women who gather there regularly for Cornerstone Builders, a small Americorps program that provides community services jobs and training to ex-offenders. A few weeks before we spoke, Renard was released from prison where he was serving time for possession of marijuana and a firearm; he is still under correctional supervision. “They givin’ you ten years to mess up,” he says. In addition to the two and a half years in prison, he must complete two and a half years of parole and, after that, five years of probation.
Renard doesn’t think about the government in the way you or I might. Lots of Americans worry about too much government or too little. For Renard, there is both too much and too little. Until Cornerstone Builders came around, government had always been absent when he needed help, but ever-present otherwise.
“The government is hard,” he told me. “We’re free but we’re not free.”
Xavier, a long-time friend of Renard’s who joins him at Cornerstone Builders, has never been given a prison sentence but nonetheless described a life hemmed in by police and jails. Diagramming with saltshakers on the table, he showed me how a police station, courthouse, and jail encircled his neighborhood. Most of his family and friends have had contact with the criminal justice system, which he calls the “only government I know.”
When you meet people such as Renard, you see the human face of a system of punishment and surveillance that has expanded dramatically over the past fifty years. At this point, the facts of mass incarceration are well known. Families have been separated from fathers, sent away in greater numbers, for longer terms of imprisonment, seemingly without regard to the nature of their offenses. Millions have been economically and politically paralyzed by criminal records, which stymie their efforts to secure jobs and cast ballots.
But there is more to criminal justice than prisons and convictions and background checks.
Most people stopped by police are not arrested, and most of those who are arrested are not convicted of anything. Of those who are, felons are the smallest group, and, of those, many are non-serious offenders. In some cities, the majority of those who encounter criminal justice have never been found guilty of a serious crime, or any crime, in a court of law. Based on research in several cities across the country, my colleagues and I estimate that only three out of every two hundred people who come into contact with criminal justice authorities are ultimately convicted of violent crimes.