The formerly incarcerated fighting for criminal justice reform

After getting out of prison, you still aren’t free. In Kentucky, your record can hold you down your entire life.
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A group of formerly incarcerated individuals in Kentucky, a state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, is rallying for criminal justice reform in America’s broken system.

In Kentucky and many other parts of the U.S., people who make a mistake at the age of 18 are branded as “criminals” for the rest of their lives. Without the opportunity for a second chance, these individuals are losing the ability to actualize their potential. Those who feel they have no hope to change their circumstances often fall back into the same destructive patterns.

Now, a group of Kentuckians known as the Smart Justice Advocates is leading a bipartisan reform effort to give hope to those caught in the system. 

Who Are the Smart Justice Advocates?

The Smart Justice Advocates, organized by Amanda Hall, is a volunteer group of formerly incarcerated individuals who have been negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. They experienced first-hand how difficult it is, especially in Kentucky, to bounce back from a mistake and work toward regaining a place in society.

With their unique backgrounds and experiences, the Smart Justice Advocates work together to draft deals, meet with lawmakers, and advocate for criminal justice reform. One member of the group, Kungu Njuguna, served as a prosecutor in Jefferson County’s Attorney’s Office before being arrested and charged for driving under the influence.

In court, the judge told Njuguna that he could either pay a fine or go to jail. Unable to pay the fine, Njuguna began to understand on a whole new level how the system punishes those without means exponentially harder. He was debarred, incarcerated, and lost everything in the process. He fell into a drug addiction that ultimately put him on the streets.

About his time as a prosecutor, Njuguna explains, “Almost every single person we prosecuted, even probably for the thefts, the root of it was addiction. And we weren’t doing anything about that. We were just throwing people in jail or fighting them and then just tagging them with records, which then makes it harder for them to do anything like getting a job.”

Along with the rest of the Smart Justice Advocates, Njuguna now assists other system-impacted people looking to improve their quality of life post-incarceration.

The Need For Second Chances

The need for criminal justice reform in Kentucky stems from decades of policy that prioritizes incarceration rates over systems of support. Felonies have been handed out en masse for small crimes like petty theft.

This has led to mass incarceration rates – in the U.S., some jails have become so overpopulated that inmates are forced to sleep on the floor. Njuguna states, “I think one of our biggest hurdles is convincing people that just because it’s a crime and you violate it, that somehow you’re morally bad and deserve to be locked up.”

Through his work with the Smart Justice Advocates, Njuguna is now attempting to improve the circumstances of the thousands of others impacted in Kentucky by fighting for comprehensive criminal justice reform.

An incarceration-first approach doesn’t address the reasons individuals commit crimes, nor does it allow them to change, grow, and learn how to better participate in society. For example, for individuals with substance-related offenses, a treatment-first approach often helps them overcome their challenges while promoting safer communities.

“I believe the U.S. has the wrong view of criminal justice,” says Njuguna, “Locking someone up does not solve the issue the person is challenged with. If we want people to be able to reenter society we’ve got to have second chances for them.”

In addition to overcoming the challenges of social stigma, research done by the Charles Koch Institute shows how difficult it is for previously incarcerated individuals to find access to adequate employment and housing when they reenter society.

More than 620,000 prisoners are released from state and federal prisons every year in the U.S., and millions more are released from local jails. Twenty-five percent of them have no high school diploma or GED. Only 54% of them held steady employment prior to their incarceration.

Those who are able to find employment only earn an average monthly income of $1,300, which isn’t nearly enough to find adequate housing in many U.S. cities. 

Advocating for Change in Kentucky’s Justice System

Kentucky’s recidivism rate is 41% in the first two years after being released. That means close to half of those who are released from incarceration will be arrested again within two years. The system, as it stands, perpetuates failure.

To turn the tide and see criminal justice reform in their state, the Smart Justice Advocates regularly gather at Kentucky’s capitol building to meet with legislators and advocate for the issues they believe are most pressing.

Last year, the group worked on advocating for individuals to be allowed to expunge charges from their records. They’re targeting the barriers these individuals face upon reintegrating into society, in an attempt to improve their quality of life and eliminate the chances of them reoffending.

With their unique perspectives, the Smart Justice Advocates hope to give formerly incarcerated people a second chance at success, so they can become contributing members of society rather than mere statistics.

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