This Giving Season, We Can't Wait28 November 2017
Two years ago when I sent our annual year-end letter, I began with: This is a time of possibility.
Last year, right after the election, when I sent our annual year-end letter, I began with: There is so much work to do.
This year, both are true.
At the federal level, literally every federal agency has taken some action that harms the people we serve – justice-involved individuals and their children and families. Funding decisions as well as policy prescriptions are more punitive, more inequitable, and more racist. It isn’t only the Justice Department’s rollback of civil rights enforcement and ramp-up of the failed drug war. It’s also the agencies that oversee immigration, health care, housing, and mental health and substance use disorder treatment. It seems like they are working overtime to feed all the drivers that have made the United States the world’s warden.
But closer to home, there are more hopeful signs. There is consensus at both the city and state levels that we should reconsider the 40-year series of willful policy decisions that have led to the longest prison sentences in the world and the greatest separation of children from their parents in human history.
It is precisely those willful decisions that have led us to focus much of the work of our policy arm, the Osborne Center for Justice Across Generations, on children of incarcerated parents and the elders languishing in prison or struggling after release from extremely long sentences to re-establish themselves in families and communities.
This past year, our efforts on these issues took us to another “front.” Literally. The front door of mass incarceration: arrest, bail, and detention policies that lead to filling the jails that feed the prisons. Last year, nearly 58,000 people cycled through New York City jails, primarily on Rikers Island – a place that most New Yorkers have seen only from above, while flying in and out of the Island’s closest neighbor, LaGuardia Airport.
The majority of the men, women, and adolescents housed in city jails are pretrial detainees – not guilty of any crime but awaiting disposition. They are held in universally condemned and violent conditions because they cannot afford bail. These are also conditions under which many Osborne staff work: we have operated programs on Rikers Island for decades, offering everything from discharge planning to culinary arts training. Our efforts “on the ground” have touched thousands of incarcerated individuals and their families, but the larger systemic challenges that keep so many ensnared require that we look up from the ground, and raise our heads and hands. Remarkably, a broad coalition – triggered by activists and ultimately supported by public officials at all levels – has led to a consensus that Rikers Island be closed.
But in the meantime: We can’t wait.
We need to address the culture that demeans everyone who visits Rikers Island or who lives or works in these jails NOW. And we must reduce the number of people held in jail by diverting some from entering and speeding up the release of those who are there. Osborne recently began a new program to identify women on Rikers who – with advocacy and support to lower bail or find housing or speed the court process – could be released. In just the last month, we were able to facilitate the release of six women – four of whom were released without bail, one whose case was fully resolved, and one for whom we were able to get bail reduced and paid. And we expect this trend to continue. But even as we do the work to free individual women, we continue to focus on the need to expand access and increase safety on Rikers Island, and eliminate a money bail system that criminalizes poverty and disproportionately affects people of color.
For more than 80 years, we have stood at the intersection of POLICY and PRACTICE, offering a powerful combination of direct services and advocacy grounded in the self-expressed needs and specific, systemic reforms identified by the individuals and families we serve who are most directly affected by a justice system built on outdated notions of retribution.
There is so much work to do and so much possibility as we strive to turn our justice system from retribution to reconciliation. Your support will allow us to continue to advocate for systemic reforms while we connect people to the services and supports that enable them to reunite with their families and build productive lives after their incarceration. Today, right now, your contribution will determine what we can do to serve more than 10,000 individuals we reach each year and the change that is to come.
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Thank you for giving generously.
President & CEO