Speech | Criminal Justice Reform

Trumka: Criminal Justice Reform is a Labor Issue

Los Angeles, Calif.

Thank you, Sister Maria Elena [Durazo] for that warm introduction, and I want to thank you for inviting me to Homeboy Industries, which demonstrates so effectively how opportunities and support can help those individuals who have spent time in our criminal justice system, return successfully to society for a second chance at a new life.

Your recipe for change is practical, designed to produce results: employment counseling, mental health services and legal help. And then there are the nuts-and-bolts services like tattoo removal. Best of all, your businesses, everything from your T-shirt and silk-screening business and food trucks, to the bakery and farmers’ market, are popular and profitable. You’re making a difference, one life at a time, and that’s how to make a lasting difference. I’m proud to be here.

You are in business because mass incarceration has become a big business—a business whose product is low wages and blighted lives, and the time has come for us to do something about it.

A few years ago I read a book called The New Jim Crow. I knew mass incarceration was a problem, but when I finished Michelle Alexander’s thoroughly detailed indictment of America’s prison system, I had a real moment.

The book laid out what’s happening now, how we, as a nation, under the guise of public safety, spend billions making our country less safe, by forcing millions of people of color into a permanent criminal class. We have selectively locked people up, sealed people out and shut entire communities down.

As I read the last few sentences of the book, I made a promise to myself that I would do everything in my power to help change this tragic reality.

At the AFL-CIO Convention here in Los Angeles a year ago, I put the question to my brothers and sisters across America’s labor movement: Would we stand together to build a popular movement to reform our criminal justice systems? Our goal would be simple: To advocate for and win a system less “criminal” and more “just.”

What I heard was a resounding, “YES!”

We committed to do something about it. That brings me to why we are here.

Our vision is a nation where redemption is possible through the virtues of hard work. Yes, people make mistakes and commit crimes. But they can learn from those mistakes and move on to productive lives with good-paying jobs and a future for themselves and their families, because every life has meaning. Every life has value. It’s one of the founding principles of this great republic.

Think about our founding principles. I know for a fact the words “mass incarceration” are in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution.

It’s an awkward phrase, isn’t it? Maybe that’s because it’s hard to find a word for something so completely out-of-synch with America’s values. It doesn’t fit. The experience of it doesn’t make sense. So we call it “mass incarceration,” because all we can do is be literal about the facts.

Yet before we talk about what mass incarceration is, I need to tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t a logical, fair or evenhanded response to crime, because the numbers tell us different.

Today, one-third of black men in America will serve time in state or federal prison at some point in their lifetime. That’s twice the rate from the 1970s and over five times higher than for white men, even though long-term federal studies show us that black men and white men commit crimes at roughly the same rates.

People of color are suspected more, arrested more, charged more, convicted more and imprisoned longer, and that ugly truth has helped America earn the terrible title of the most imprisoned of any developed country. We sentence people to prison at between 5 and 10 times the rate of any other advanced nation. The more you look at the numbers, the worse it gets.

Let me make this next point emphatically. This is not a result of higher crime rates. This is because of lengthy mandatory minimums for drug offenses and “three-strikes” laws that put people away for life, for life. And for all its bluster, guess what? Mass incarceration has not even reduced crime.

But it has been hell on families, especially children. Almost seven times as many kids had dads in prison in 2000 as in 1980.

As you can imagine, a prison-at-all-costs mentality also runs up quite a price tag. Can you believe $80 billion a year? It’s true, and the number is four times higher when you count police, judicial and legal services.

The story behind the facts is sad, disgraceful and racial, and the truth is we have done this to ourselves. We made one very stupid, sweeping assumption and then took an equally stupid and sweeping action.

First, as a nation, we decided that young people of color are inherently dangerous. And then we decided to deal with that stupid and sweeping assumption by watching them like hawks, and if they made a mistake, we locked them up, kept them there, and forgot about it.

Bad decisions based on bad impulses don’t usually end up well. In this case, they ended up producing this “thing” called mass incarceration that has once again created a second class America based primarily on race.

Racial profiling is at the heart of this epidemic of injustice. Sometimes it seems we wrestle constantly with an impulse to discriminate and keep down our poor communities and our brown and black communities.

Maybe we didn’t realize it while it was happening. Maybe some of us chose not to realize it. But now, through the courageous work of many in this room, California and the rest of America are beginning to wake up to the crime of mass incarceration.

Waking up means understanding that this is an American issue, not an isolated race issue. We pay for it with our taxes by incarcerating instead of educating and employing. We pay for it when we lock people out of good jobs and housing. And we pay for it when we turn our backs on our brothers and sisters. The theme of this event is mass employment, not mass incarceration, because we need to put America back to work. That’s how our families thrive. That’s how our communities prosper. That’s how we can rebuild this country.

Homeboy Industries is one of the answers, offering jobs and a second chance, but we need solutions across the board.

Here are some ideas from America’s labor movement. We said at our convention last year that the American criminal justice system today spends too much on punishment and not enough to help people change. We need to reverse that. We said we believe people should get another chance to contribute to our society.

We said we oppose mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes, and we want to end the unnecessary and indiscriminate privatization of correctional facilities.

We support restorative justice, things like job-training, education, probation and parole, programs that help people reintegrate in our communities. We support treating illegal drug use as a public health issue.

And we support fully restoring all the rights of American citizenship for those who have served their time. Of course, that includes the right to vote and the right to serve on a jury but also public aid for education, housing and employment assistance.

Some of you might be wondering, OK, yes, but why are labor leaders involved? Why do we care about reforming our criminal justice system and investing in crime prevention and rehabilitation?

It’s a labor issue because mass incarceration means literally millions of people work jobs in prisons for pennies an hour—a hidden world of coerced labor here in the United States. And when some people are forced to work for close to nothing, all workers’ living standards are pushed down.

It’s a labor issue because those same people who work for pennies in prison, once they have served their time, find themselves locked out of the job market by employers who screen applicants for felony convictions.

It’s a labor issue because families and entire communities crumble when able-bodied men and women come home and aren’t allowed to work.

And it’s a labor issue because those people in our prisons are overwhelmingly young, and too many never recover from the damage prison does to their ability to function in the economy—low pay, unemployment and economic insecurity for millions of people means a less productive, less efficient economy for all of us.

It’s a labor issue because millions of people have been barred from the polling booth and permanently excluded from our democracy, unable to advocate for good jobs and safe jobs and other working family priorities.

It’s a labor issue because we are police officers and corrections officers, and too many of us in both the public and private sectors step into unsafe working conditions on the job. Think about tensions in the prisons and on the streets caused by mandatory sentencing laws and prison overcrowding.

It’s a labor issue because some companies are profiting from packed prisons while creating unsafe working conditions for correction officers.

And finally it’s a labor issue, because labor rights and social justice and civil rights are intertwined. In America, 99% of us have to work for a living. We work together. We live side-by-side. We share the same communities. We share so much, and so we know that when we find injustice, we must call it out for what it is, and fight to make it right.

That’s what makes this country the best on Earth. That’s what carries forward the best elements of America.

Your advocacy on Proposition 47 here in California is carrying America forward. The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act is leading the way.

I support Prop 47, because it says every single one of us, every one of us, deserves the chance to turn our life around and to stop the cycle of prison and crime. Prop 47 offers an opportunity for a better life for California.

Yet this will not be an easy fight. We have to educate millions of voters. We have to let people know that we are not “soft on crime.” We believe in the rule of law and we don’t believe in making excuses for people who have done terrible things.

But we must emphasize that endless cycles of poverty and imprisonment threaten the freedoms and opportunities all of us hold dear as Americans.

And, I believe, given the facts, America will stand with us. When the stakes are high, America’s better angels rise to the occasion. We’ve seen it in places like Selma, Alabama, we need it in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and we’ll fight for it throughout California.

We’ll stand together, and work together, for real justice, for Prop 47, for an end to mass incarceration! We’ll tell the truth, America’s justice is broken, and we’re gonna fix it.

We’ll put it together, by walking together, by marching together, for justice and jobs, good pay and strong unions. This isn’t about your issues or my issues --- this is about our issues

Side by side, for Prop 47! Winning together for prison reform! Leading America with Prop 47!

When you vote Prop 47 into law in California, our entire nation will begin changing its ideas about criminal justice.

Every single day, California breaks ground on the path toward the future of a better America. I love you for it. I really do. God bless you, and keep up the good work!

Explore the Issue