By Christina Tudor, 2015 YP4 Fellow

I’ve noticed when I have conversations about the Criminal “Justice” System, we talk about the abstract. People talk about writing laws. People talk about keeping people “safe,” about “bad people” getting punished for their wrongdoings.

But—crime isn’t the root— it’s a symptom of a larger problems: racism and classism. Over-incarceration isn’t connected to reduced crime rates but is actually about reinforcing power hierarchies. This why the majority of those housed in prisons are people of color, people with mental illnesses, and low-income individuals. What we don’t talk about is the real stories of the people unjustly impacted by this system of punishment.

We live in a world where you can be arrested for skipping class, “zero-tolerance” policies, minor infractions against school rules.  According to, “Students have been taken out of school in handcuffs, held in jail for days at a time, and fines have totaled more than $1,000 for students who miss more than 10 days of school.”

Don’t come to class? Pay a fine.

Don’t have the financial means to pay that fine? You could face jail time.

Did you hear that? If you don’t have the means, you go to jail. This sets the stage for this system to unfairly target low-income people. Not to mention that many see America’s prison system as the reinvention of slavery and a means to uphold white supremacy.

Instead of policies that truly reform and restore—we implement policies that criminalize and punish . We need long-term solutions. We would rather criminalize instead of actually helping people and finding long-term solutions to problems.

In fact, there are more black men in prison than were enslaved in 1850.

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Prisons are also taking the place of mental health facilities.  The United States’ current mental health care system is failing to fully support and provide treatment to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who suffer from mental illnesses. As a result, 356,268 people with mental illnesses are now incarcerated while only 35,000 people are receiving treatment from hospitals – this means there are now 10 times more people with mental illness in prisons than mental institutions.

Nonetheless, lawmakers have sanctioned a major roadblock to expanding affordable access to mental health care. The conservative politicians who continue to resist Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion are preventing an estimated 1.2 million low-income Americans from getting coverage for the mental health services they need.

This is a terrible system that is failing so many across the country. The government should be proactive in providing quality education, health care, and public assistance to help people deliver on opportunity – not fail them from the start.

We need to name this problem. Instead, this impacts many peoples’ lives. It disproportionately and unfairly hurts those who have been marginalized—especially, people of color, low income folks, and people with mental illnesses.

It’s not an us vs. them situation.