Let's Take Big Money Out of America's Justice System | Opinion

Onscreen, one of us portrayed a prisoner. In real life, one of us was actually a prisoner.

In the dictionary, "justice" is defined as just behavior or treatment: a concern for peace and genuine respect for people. "And genuine respect for people" sends ripples through our conscience. The very notion of a for-profit prison is inherently against such a thing.

As Black men, we both have experienced the impact of the country's prison-industrial complex in some way, shape or form. It is a corrupt system that profits from pain and imprisonment.

For private prison companies to make money, they need commodities of value, and the commodities they are trading are human beings. The allowance of prisons to become privatized businesses is the downside of capitalism run amuck. Using human beings as commodities to make money is akin to pre-Civil War slavery. It is disgusting, deplorable, and the mere thought of such a thing should make your stomach queasy.

We want everyone who reads this to see the images in the mirror we are holding up to society in a clear unbiased way.

Overall crime has been going down for years, yet America has around 2.3 million people locked behind bars. If nothing changes, one out of every seventeen white men, one out of six Latinos, and close to one out of four Black men born today will end up in jail at some point in their lives.

An absurd amount of our tax dollars are spent to house prisoners each year. Non-violent offenders (especially drug addicts), and those who simply can't afford bail for minor charges, get swept up in an unjust system and the American people foot the hefty bills for their incarceration. There are more viable, sustainable options that can come at a minimal cost to taxpayers, but the modern-day prison system in this country is built on making profit. Let that sink in. As tax-paying citizens, we would much rather someone suffering from addiction be put into a non-profit, state-funded drug rehabilitation program, or a program that specializes in mental health than some expensive, overcrowded for-profit prison.

Now, do some people break the law and deserve to be held accountable? Of course. But the prison system should also work to correct and restore those who have served their penance to the community. Our modern-day prison system is designed to entrap people, and entangle them in webs they can't escape.

Even worse, our government has done next to nothing to fix this. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains recognition and support, we cannot lose this moment to enact real and substantial policy reform to overhaul our criminal justice system.

We are here to say we have the power to fix this mess. People power.

We can abolish private, for-profit prisons. They hold ten percent of America's prison inmates, and three-quarters of all immigrant detainees. Private prisons spent $64 million dollars lobbying our government over the past decade, and when you consider they earned $6 billion dollars in revenue from our tax dollars, that most certainly should raise concern. Imagine a world where we could spend this money actually rehabilitating people, investing in improving lives, investing in communities, breaking the school to prison pipeline.

We can enact bail reform. People sitting in jail often have not been convicted of a crime, but simply can't afford bail. Many lose their jobs and apartments while waiting for trial. Who benefits from this system? Corrections officers and bail bondsmen. Meanwhile, you and I are footing the bill. It makes no sense.

We can change the way we pick judges. Many are elected by voters. Research shows that to keep their jobs, judges are more likely to hand out harsher sentences as they approach Election Day. They get campaign donations from lawyers, lobbyists, and business interests who have a vested interest in keeping the system just the way it is. We call this corruption.

We can ban corporations from using cheap prison labor instead of hiring paid workers. Inmates cleaned up the BP oil spill, making pennies on the dollar, in Louisiana, where companies can earn a $2,400 tax break for every inmate used. Corporations not only save money on prison labor—they directly profit from those tax credits!

We can do all of this, and the American people support it. So, what's standing in our way?

Special interests—prosecutors, police unions, drug companies, lobbyists. On this issue, just like so many others, special interests have a grip on our elected officials, and they stymie the progress we so critically need.

A path to putting power back in the hands of everyday Americans exists right now. States across the country are passing the provisions of the American Anti-Corruption Act championed by RepresentUs (the nation's leading right-left anti-corruption organization). Desmond sits on the board. The Anti-Corruption Act would ban gifts from lobbyists to politicians, close the revolving door between Congress and the prison industry, and enfranchise even more voters—so politicians actually represent we, the people.

Time and again, average citizens think they can't make a difference, but they can. Desmond has proved it is possible. After he served time in prison, he led a grassroots campaign that brought conservatives and progressives together to win back voting rights for 1.4 million felons in Florida. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition effort began with the collection of more than 760,000 signatures from citizens and ended with the passage of Florida Amendment 4, which was supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Our government should work for you and your family. Join us, and together, we can make real change. Change that puts the power back into the hands of the people.

Omar Epps is an award-winning American actor whose film roles include Juice, Higher Learning, The Wood, In Too Deep and Love and Basketball. He co-starred on the critically-acclaimed FOX medical drama, House, for which he received an NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series" in 2007. Desmond Meade is President and Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a Floridians for Fair Democracy Chairman, a TIME 100 honoree, a RepresentUs board member, and an attorney. In 2018, he led a historic victory to restore voting rights to 1.4 million inmates in Florida.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.​​​​​