Inimai M. Chettiar, J.D. is the director of the Brennan Center’s justice program, whose priority initiative is ending mass incarceration while keeping the country safe. She conceived and edited “Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice,” a collection of policy agendas from 2016 presidential candidates and other national leaders. Chettiar is a graduate of Georgetown University and the University of Chicago School of Law.
Ending mass incarceration requires a groundswell of public awareness and action. There is a strategy to make it happen; contrary to popular belief, everyone, including those in entertainment, has a role to play.
The facts bear repeating. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of its prisoners. Studies show increasing incarceration has little effect on reducing crime. Almost 40% of prisoners are locked up with little public safety rationale. Over-incarceration wreaks havoc on American lives—stripping away the right to vote, exacerbating economic inequality, and ravaging communities of color. Sensible solutions exist: fewer arrests, reclassifying crimes, reducing sentences.
The entertainment industry has the power to bring stories about this societal injustice to a wider audience. Entertainers can also utilize their platforms as activists in their own right.
Over the last decade, a bipartisan movement arose to revise criminal justice policy. Republicans and Democrats joined forces in several states to reduce imprisonment, a stark reversal of past policy. Last year, 19 states passed 57 pieces of bipartisan reform legislation. Louisiana reduced sentences. Connecticut modernized bail. Georgia overhauled probation.
In Washington, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) partnered to introduce an overhaul of sentencing laws. Advocacy groups including Black Lives Matter, the Brennan Center, ACLU and the Koch Institute built national awareness.
Adding to this momentum, voters overwhelmingly want reform. Three-quarters of Americans support significant improvement to the justice system, including two-thirds of Republicans and substantial majorities of Democrats and independents. Fewer than half of Americans think the death penalty is applied fairly. Two in three Americans support legalizing marijuana.
As the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke reveal, justice reform energizes young voters, voters of color and women. It can mobilize voters of all stripes. Democrats and Republicans alike can capitalize on that energy by campaigning on the issue.
How can the entertainment industry help? Actors, showrunners and entertainers possess fan bases and a nationwide reach. As we saw with #TimesUp, Hollywood can propel social causes into the center of public discourse by highlighting historically ignored issues. They can reach audiences who have never heard of mass incarceration, and rally those who already support the cause. This public support can pressure politicians to prioritize reform.
The push has already started. In “Madam Secretary,” Tea Leoni plays a character running for President, with a pledge to enact criminal justice reform. TV mogul Shonda Rhimes has repeatedly incorporated incarceration plotlines. In the March crossover episode of “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” Viola Davis’s character argued before the Supreme Court, explaining that her client was unjustly incarcerated and noting “millions like him are relegated to a subclass of human existence in our prisons.” In one night, Rhimes broadcast a heartbreakingly common story to 4.4 million viewers.
Some entertainers have taken on the cause as activists. In 2015, musician John Legend wrote an open letter to President Obama urging him to grant widespread clemency for nonviolent drug offenders, and a year later launched the #FREEAMERICA campaign. Rapper Meek Mill successfully leveraged his own experience in the fight. In 2017, he went to prison for violating probation on a 10-year-old charge, triggering a massive public response. In April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered his release. He has since become a symbol of the 4.6 million people on probation or parole in the U.S., and an activist for reform.
More recently, reality TV star Kim Kardashian received massive coverage on morning shows and tabloids after her visit to President Trump to lobby both for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, serving a life sentence for drug possession, and for sentencing reform legislation. Kardashian’s visit helped many in the public see the devastating impact of our draconian drug laws: Johnson would have spent her entire life in prison had it not been for clemency.
Despite what the President would have you believe, crime is at an all-time low and still declining. Yet he and Attorney General Sessions blame this imaginary crime wave on immigrants, making MS-13 the new “Willie Horton” and helping resurrect 1980s style, fearmongering attack ads. Fortunately, they are both outliers in their own party on the issue. The Koch brothers and Republican stalwart Grassley support reform.
Such backsliding makes it even more important that celebrities and entertainers use their power and public visibility to take up the cause. They can reach different and broader audiences than can standard activists and researchers, increasing public support for true change.
As 2020 approaches, it is imperative that Americans pressure politicians to act on what is arguably the largest current racial justice atrocity in this country. We all should have a hand in this fight, and the entertainment industry can, too.
Ruth Sangree contributed to the research and drafting of this article.