Rethinking Criminal Justice

By Dr. O’Dell Johnson

Those who have experienced the criminal justice system through criminal convictions and incarceration are faced with many barriers upon reentering society. These barriers are often viewed as employment, housing, education, health, and family/community reintegration. Barriers are the result of policies, rules, guidelines, and laws instituted by vast structural systems that forces those with criminal convictions into a life of criminal infamy, which means living in an environmental paradigm like the eras of the Black Codes and Jim Crow. In turn, this paradigm acts as a sub-secondary life sentence in the aftermath of criminality that negatively impacts the psychosocial, economic, and spiritual wellbeing, which often counters self-actualization processes towards obtaining wholeness and belonging back into society.

In rethinking criminal justice, we must first develop a higher level of awareness surrounding the health and well-being of those who have experienced criminality – thus incarceration, as well as understand the ethos of those experiencing such traumas. Further, we must fully consider the mental health impact incarceration have on the individual psyche, which perpetuates continuous harm towards individual growth, and limits safety in community.

On an individual level, Research Institute for Social Equity believes to advance individual transformation with those who have experienced criminality, convictions, incarceration, and reentry, we must first restructure the verbiage used to refer to this group.The usage of dehumanizing titles and categories creates a segmented subclass platform or caste system that is representative of societal outcasts. Living under such identity stigmas causes great harm by altering the re-capture of humanness qualities. Labels such as inmates, ex-offenders, convicts, parolees/probationers, ex-criminals, or criminals must be eliminated to prevent re-traumatization of criminality experiences.

To honor the lived experiences, humanity, and individual qualities of those who are incarcerated, RISE refers to this group as Incarcerated Citizens (IC), and for those who have reentered society as Returning Citizens (RC). In some instances, both groups are combined as Incarcerated and Returning Citizens (IRC) to show the connection of pre/post incarceration and reentry as it relates to programs. Those who remain incarcerated, and working towards a positive resolve within themselves, and those who have reentered society who demonstrate sustainable success, we refer to as Survivors.

The incarceration of human-beings is one of the most unnatural, and inhumane debilitating processes to human functioning. New solutions that are humanistic in scope is urgently needed to end mass incarceration in the United States to reduce harm and restore lives.

-O’Dell Johnson, PhD