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  • Writer's pictureChad Thevenot

How Civil Society Can Ensure Justice for Drug War Victims

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Imagine for a moment a society in which all of our criminal justice policies and practices are just. All punishments fit the crimes. No person is arrested, prosecuted, or sentenced unfairly. The criminal justice system is doing its job of protecting society.

Even in this utopian version of criminal justice, we would still have a major problem: what to do with the millions of people who have already been hurt by the drug war and other excesses of our criminal justice system. How do we help them restore their lives?

From roughly 1975 to 2010, largely due to the drug war, the United States witnessed a precipitous rise in the number of persons incarcerated, peaking at around 2 million people. However, in recent years the state and federal prison population has begun to decline, albeit modestly, thanks to numerous reform measures such as the First Step Act of 2018. This kind of criminal justice reform in the United States is absolutely vital, but it’s not enough.

I’m free from prison, but now what?

This is the question that Dorothy Gaines faced on December 22, 2000, after serving five and a half years of a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison. On that day she received clemency from President Clinton. Dorothy had served as the “poster person” for the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency, a coalition of religious leaders across the country who urged President Clinton to grant clemency to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. I served as the coordinator of that campaign, and while driving home for the holiday I was beyond elated when I heard the news about Dorothy’s release.

However, what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that, in many ways, the challenges for Dorothy were just beginning. A criminal record and years of being separated from her family and society would make it almost impossible for her to get a good job, find suitable housing, support her family, and so much more. Dorothy was now “free,” but not really.

Before being ensnared in the criminal justice system when an ex-boyfriend claimed she was part of a drug conspiracy so that he could get his own sentence reduced, Dorothy had worked as a nurse technician for 20 years, first at the University of South Alabama and then at Providence Hospital in Mobile. Dorothy’s husband had died of a heart attack, so she was the sole provider for her three kids. “The drug war tore this family apart. I was the only parent,” Dorothy explained to me.

“The drug war tore this family apart. I was the only parent.”

Dorothy's son, Phillip, holding his daughter, Taylor

When Dorothy entered prison on March 10, 1995, her youngest child, Phillip, was only nine years old. Phillip started using drugs to cope with the loss of his only parent. Increasingly, he got into trouble. He’s now in prison himself. Dorothy has eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and, in myriad ways, they all suffer because of the madness of her drug war prosecution and incarceration.

As a society, we asked the criminal justice system to protect us. And, in many ways, it has. But we also ignored its excesses and abuses for far too long. The result is the devastation of millions of individuals, their families, and their communities. We now have an obligation to help them. While government programs might help in some ways, what we really need are philanthropists, nonprofits, churches, businesses, and others in civil society to step up in a big way. We need holistic, sustainable solutions that promote long-term healing and integration.

What could that look like?

I asked Dorothy this question recently. With her characteristic optimism and good nature, she offered a few ideas:

  • Effective drug treatment and mental health services. Otherwise, people with these health issues too often end up in the criminal justice system, which is expensive, inhumane, and ineffective in dealing with the root problems. Dorothy believes that Phillip might have gone down a different path if he had just had access to effective drug treatment.

  • Financial support for good housing. Banks, charities, and even crowdfunding efforts can help more folks like Dorothy buy a house, providing much-needed stability and security. This is Dorothy’s number one goal right now. After prison she and her family had to live with relatives, and now they live in a rental unit in a community surrounded by violence.

  • Employment opportunities. More businesses need to take a chance on training and cultivating people like Dorothy. A self-described “PTA mom,” Dorothy has been a powerful messenger to school children on how to stay out of trouble. She has volunteered her time and limited resources to help kids visit their incarcerated parents. She is absolutely capable of making an even greater contribution to society.

Of course, one-size-fits-all solutions aren’t the answer. Rather, we need diverse ideas and efforts from across every corner of civil society to recognize the complex challenges faced by victims of criminal justice abuse. That’s why I have been so encouraged by innovative models and approaches that enable individuals with a criminal record to rebuild, such as:

  • The Last Mile, the first computer coding curriculum in a U.S. prison. Since their launch in 2010, they have served over 600 students and have a 0% recidivism rate. Some graduates of the program have had job offers in Silicon Valley with six-figure salaries.

  • Chrysalis, based in Los Angeles, which has helped over 74,000 clients through individualized case management, a job-readiness program, and paid employment to help them prepare to reenter the workforce.

  • The Phoenix, a sober active community that launched an internship program called “Resilience” to train individuals coming out of incarceration to run volunteer sober fitness programs. The Phoenix has half the relapse rates of traditional addiction-recovery programs. They connect individuals in recovery to a supportive community and healthy activities that transform their attitudes, mindset, and behaviors.

These organizations are just a few of many that demonstrate the power of transformation and second chances when people are supported with the opportunities and tools to be successful. We need to further innovate and scale such efforts, so that Dorothy and the millions of others like her can better realize their full potential. That’s not just good for Dorothy; it’s good for society.

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