The injustice that killed Black Americans like George Floyd and countless others has sparked the largest protests in American history, reverberating across the world. And while some U.S. cities and states have sprung into action — passing measures that ban chokeholds and whittle away at the qualified immunity provisions that shield abusive officers from accountability — we still have a long way to go to dismantle structural racism.
The reality is, without the deliberate intervention of civil society organizations and dedicated activists, the fire and funding behind this fight may soon run out once again.
That is why we at the Open Society Foundations are building on our decades-long work to end structural racism in America with a historic series of investments in organizations devoted to advancing racial justice and keeping this moment alive. Put simply, we listened to leaders on the ground, heard what they needed and committed to their work building political power in Black communities across the country.
Much of the national conversation has been about policing. But we must dream bigger, and attack the racism that pervades all aspects of our criminal justice system. The failed war on drugs and harsh sentencing policies that disproportionately punish Black Americans have helped create the crisis that is mass incarceration. The statistics are shocking: The U.S. only has 5% of the world’s population, but close to 25% of its prison population; Black Americans are 500% more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans. Black people comprise 13% of the population, yet account for 43% of people executed since 1976, according to the ACLU, and 55% of the current population on death row.
The courtroom, too, betrays racial bias; prosecutors are rewarded for the number of people they put away, without regard to the impact on public safety. Reform-minded prosecutors like Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia are pioneering new approaches, but they are still the exception, not the rule.
Our current system of pre-trial detention punishes people for being poor — guilty or not. It locks up millions of people before they even have a chance to face a jury of their peers, an abomination that ruins lives, damages families and undermines the idea that everyone in America is innocent until proven guilty. As a result, we desperately need comprehensive bail reform.
We must also confront the excessive prison terms that have become our habitual response to crimes of all kinds. Research shows that incarcerating people for long periods of time is costly and counterproductive. Excessive sentences swell our prison population, are imposed on Black and brown people at significantly higher rates and drive up the costs to taxpayers, as medical expenses mount for a rapidly growing elderly population that is far less likely to commit crime as they grow older.
One solution is to scale back penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenses, as 35 states have done — while reducing crime in recent years. But if we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we must also rethink our response to crimes that are more serious, including violent ones. Even those who have been victims of violence increasingly do not believe in long-term prison sentences. A poll conducted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice in 2016 found that nearly 70% of survivors prefer that those who harmed them go through treatment and community supervision rather than remain incarcerated.
We need to abolish the death penalty. 10% of the people executed have been innocent and were later exonerated. And Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has argued that when the state has the right to kill it reverberates through the whole criminal justice system that lethal force is OK, and makes other forms of criminal justice reform much more difficult.
The need for these reforms is even greater in the age of COVID-19. Prisons and jails, which pose health risks under the best of circumstances, have become viral hotspots. We need national and state leaders to release elderly, infirm and vulnerable people who no longer pose threats to public safety but who face a death sentence the courts did not intend if forced to remain in harm’s way in places where social distancing is impossible.
We salute the activists in the streets who are forcing our elected leaders to at last take significant steps to transform policing in ways that protect, rather than terrorize, the communities they serve. With Open Society’s investments, it is our fervent hope that the activists will have the capacity and time to build power, rip structural racism out by its roots and hold our elected leaders accountable for the wholesale reforms this country’s criminal justice system sorely need. If we let the momentum of this moment fade, Black Americans will never experience the promise of the American Dream, and the country will never live up to its ideals. Black lives matter, and they always will.
Alexander Soros is Deputy Chair of the Open Society Foundations.