Poverty, hunger, homelessness, and addiction are societal problems in the US that are criminalized. Rather than making structural changes that address and reduce these societal problems, the US has relied on creating and expanding our system of incarceration and defining crime and criminals by our failure to create equitable systems. The notion that people who suffer from these challenges are criminals regardless of the context in which the ‘crime’ occurs leads to further inequity and the life-altering consequences of a criminal conviction.

There is growing bi-partisan consensus that “lock them up and throw away the key” has not been and is not the panacea to crime and that this approach exacerbates poverty, inequality, and the proliferation of other societal problems. States are attempting to reduce their prison populations; judicial and probation/parole reforms are attempting to divert rather than sentence, re-sentence, and re-incarcerate; and the federal government has over the last decade made incremental steps toward reducing its prison population.

Yet, the US remains the largest incarcerator in the world, and racial minorities remain largely and disproportionately impacted. Real justice transformation will not occur unless we reevaluate our definitions of crime and criminals, the conditions in which crime occurs, and policies that further the expansion of incarceration.

At the Center for Health and Justice Transformation, we believe we must decriminalize low level offenses; work with affected communities that are disproportionately impacted; increase funding for poverty reduction; and ensure policy and reforms uphold the health of marginalized communities.

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