In my day job as a social scientist, I crunch a lot of numbers – statistical analyses, market projections, fancy graphics and the like. In such a job, it becomes normal to reduce very complex issues into a handful of facts and figures. For many, it makes the world easier to comprehend.
Mass incarceration is one of those complex issues.
Depending on who you talk to, our criminal justice system is either a shining beacon to the world on how to administer justice, or an irrevocably broken institution run by broken people. However, even with the strong opinions coming from both sides, I’ve yet to meet someone that considered our justice system a perfect one.
If you’ll allow me to put on my statistician’s hat for a moment, I’d like to present to you three stats that concern me about incarceration in Durham: 37, 110, and 17.
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The first stat, 37, is the percentage of people locked up in the Durham County jail on misdemeanor charges that cannot afford a few hundred dollars to hire a bail bond agent. A lot of their charges are non-violent: trespassing, shoplifting, writing bad checks, smoking marijuana. Yet while the law says they are innocent until proven guilty in court, they are detained in the same cages as people convicted of dangerous crimes. Coupled with the fact that over 70 percent of Durham’s incarcerated are people of color, and that even a weekend behind bars multiplies your chances of poverty, and we have a bit more insight into what keeps our racial wealth gap permanent. While being poor is not ideal, it is also not illegal – even if our system implies otherwise.
The second stat, 110, is the average amount of money Durham taxpayers spend to keep one person in jail on a daily basis. The average person spends 19 days in jail after being arrested, meaning we spend over $2,000 every time someone is brought downtown in handcuffs. That’s a $2,000 bonus we could use to raise salaries for teachers and fire fighters. That’s $2,000 the Durham could leverage toward desperately-needed affordable housing. They say you always pay for what you prioritize – a statement that’s true for a household budget, or the budget for Durham County.
The third stat, 17, has been one that has pulled at the heart of Durham for a few years now. It is the age Wildin Acosta arrived in Durham as a Honduran immigrant fleeing gang violence. Before he could graduate from Riverside High School, ICE agents detained him and started his six-month detainment in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. These were six-months away from everyone that loved him, including stints of solitary confinement, in what the Marshall Project called the “black hole of the immigration system.” To this day, Wildin fights deportation in court for the right to start a family and build a life in the United States.
While these statistics, and countless others like them, tell us part of the story about mass incarceration, the 17 reminds us of something that 37 and 110 do not – that these numbers are not just numbers. These numbers represent people – people with talents, dreams, and families that love them. These numbers have names like Sandra Bland, Kalief Browder, and Laquan McDonald – names like Durham’s Frank Clark and Vera McGriff – names like Wildin Acosta. They are loved both by the community and the Creator. Their lives matter.
It’s because they matter that I stand in solidarity with justice-involved people, committed to change a system that devalues them. I invite you to stand with them as well.