Ambitious ACLU Smart Justice Campaign aims to change the face of incarceration

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

With an increase in the prison population of 700 percent since 1970, the American Civil Liberties Union has decided to try to change the criminal justice system with ambitious goals.

The United States not only has the highest actual number of incarcerated people in the world, but it also has the highest per capita rate.

The stated goals of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice are to reduce the number of those incarcerated in jails and prisons by 50 percent, and “to eliminate racism in the criminal legal system.”

Reaching these lofty aims in Michigan is the charge of Campaign Coordinator Heather Garretson, a dynamic attorney who is originally from Muskegon.

In fact, she returned home in February to speak at an event called Locked in Solidarity, another national campaign, which seeks to energize Christians to extend compassion to the imprisoned and work towards reducing their numbers.

 The event was sponsored by Muskegon’s Fresh Coast Alliance, whose primary goal is to help returning citizens with re-entry. Originally affiliated with 70 x 7 Recovery in Holland and focused on helping those with addictions, Fresh Coast observed that in the Muskegon there seemed to be a tremendous need to go alongside former prisoners as they attempt to avoid recidivism – though the group continues to assist those with drug and alcohol problems.

Garretson drew on Biblical texts to make the case that Christians are called to extend compassion, love, and assistance to incarcerated people. She quoted a New Testament passage where Jesus Christ quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free...”

As a graduate of Calvin College, and before that from Muskegon’s West Michigan Christian High School, Garretson is deeply familiar with the faith community.

Following Calvin, Garretson received her J.D. from Creighton University Law School in Nebraska. She clerked for both the Nebraska Supreme Court and for the federal court. She was then a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in Kansas City, Missouri, followed by a time in general practice there for an international firm doing white-collar criminal defense as well as commercial litigation.

Then, as she started to raise a family, the West Side of Michigan called Garretson back. She worked for WMU-Cooley Law School and for a while as  a Scholar in Residence at the City University of New York Law School.
Garretson has published several works, including “Beyond Punishment for the Crime: Collateral Consequences of a Conviction”  for the Center for Public Justice and a contribution to Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction, edited by WMU-Cooley Associate Dean Tracey Brame for the Institute for Continuing Legal Education.

People of faith are but one audience that Garretson will reach out to  in her Smart Justice role. Others include neighborhood associations, the general public through broadly advertising training sessions (one was held in Grand Rapids on Feb. 23), and people who are passionate about policy at the state level. She notes that there are a large number of organizations working on different aspects of mass incarceration, and she intends to make sure that there is broad collaboration with them.

Nationally, the ACLU worked with about 2400 volunteers and more than 43,000 supporters during 2018 to advance Smart Justice through legislative issues. Garretson says that each state ACLU affiliate hires a team and then works with the team to set specific priorities and strategies.

There are regional organizers in Grand Traverse area, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, and Detroit. The Grand Rapids organizer is Richard Griffin.

“We’re attacking this three ways: one is to end cash bail, which is a big driver of incarceration; second, to reform sentencing policies in Michigan; and lastly to educate the public about prosecutorial discretion and make what prosecutors do more transparent,” Garretson explains. The last includes talking about the potential injustice of plea bargaining, and determining how decisions are made about who will go into diversion programs such as drug court rather than to jail or prison.

Garretson recommends watching a TED talk by Boston Prosecutor Adam Foss about prosecutorial discretion, which is very moving.

As far as racial disparities, the national statistics show that, at the end of 2014, the imprisonment rate among black men was about six times the rate for white men. Garretson cautions, though, that in Michigan different counties have widely varying numbers in racial terms. “Counties are all over the board,” she says. “The national average is that African-Americans are about 14 percent of the population and are about half of the incarcerated population. But here, it might be less than that in both statistics, or a lot more. It’s also important to distinguish between the jail and the prison populations.”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a 2010 book by Michelle Alexander which provided one of the first wake-up calls on how dire the incarceration disparities are, pointed to the War on Drugs as a major factor in those disparities. But Garretson sounds a note of caution. “I  think it’s important to understand that while the war on drugs was a racially charged goal, it’s not as much of a driver as people believe. Our jails are not full of people who are convicted of drug crimes.  What we know is true is that drug laws, including marijuana laws, are enforced disproportionately against people of color just like virtually all laws. No matter the crime, black and brown people are prosecuted at a higher rate.”

What Garretson and myriad other people note is the degree to which the system after prison is even more significant in damaging the lives of the incarcerated than the actual time served. That significance is felt in another statistic about the United States: while the number of people   incarcerated is approximately 2.3 million today, there are an additional 4.75 million involved with the criminal justice system on probation or parole. All this costs the U.S. $80 billion each year. Former prisoners are prevented from applying for certain jobs, and in Michigan (with the exception of Detroit and Kalamazoo) must check a box on employment forms if they  have been convicted of a felony. There is discrimination (legal discrimination) in housing and  public benefits. They will never be able to serve on a jury again.

Garretson welcomes assistance of attorneys in raising awareness. As just one example, she says, “Criminal defense lawyers who see indigent clients who are incarcerated pretrial because they can’t afford bail and can’t afford to go home are in a position to really help us understand.”

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