Criminal Justice

A personal mission; prison reform vs criminal justice reform

My Mission

Many years ago, when my (now deceased) son was incarcerated, I knew next to nothing about criminal justice policies, rates of incarceration, or racial disparities in sentencing.

I paid little heed to his complaints about overly punitive judges, ineffective lawyers, or prison conditions. In actuality, I believed he was just venting his frustrations.

With a better understanding of the political and social factors that have led to mass incarceration, I might have been more proactive, perhaps even joining an organization that tackled criminal justice issues.

Doing so, could have helped me cope with my anxiety and worry.

Hence, in 2016, I created a podcast, One Mother’s Voice: In the Name of Justice to provide for mothers with sons in prison “… accurate information about U.S. criminal justice policies and their effects on families and communities, and to promote activism as an antidote to hopelessness and helplessness.” (OMV is on hiatus until January 2019)

The podcast featured topics from community bail funds to health care in prisons as well as my commentary on criminal justice issues and news.

My goal for the revamped OMV is to give mothers a platform to share their experiences with the criminal justice system, their concerns, and their strategies for coping with emotional pain.

If you have a story to share, contact Wista Jeanne Johnson at

The (Trump-approved) First Step Act debate

2016 was an encouraging year for federal sentencing reform. There was bipartisan support in Congress for changing minimum mandatory sentence laws for low-level drug offenses. (Good news.)

In May 2018, the First Step Act (FSA), a prison reform bill, passed the House in May 2018. Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to President Trump, has been the major proponent of the bill.

(Some believe that Kusher’s advocacy was prompted by the fact that his father, Charles Kushner, spent two years in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering.)

Critics of FSA say that the bill is “back-end” reform that affects those already incarcerated rather than “front end” reform that seeks to affect policies that keep people out of prison through preventative measures. Its provisions include:

  • encouraging inmates to participate in vocational and rehabilitative programs
  • authorize more funding for these programs
  • increasing “good time credits”
  • using algorithms to determine inmate eligibility for these credits.

However, Vox reports “…algorithms can perpetuate racial and class discrimination; for instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes.”

FSA faces opposition from Republicans (Sen. Tom Cotton–AK) and Democrats, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senator Cotton said, “This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism. Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study…(m)ost criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.

The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement.” (Of course, he makes no mention of the causes for recidivism.)

According to a Marshall Project article, “Opponents, mostly on the left, say any criminal justice reform bill should also reduce mandatory minimum sentences or give judges more discretion to make the punishment fit the crime. A bipartisan Senate bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, is also making its way through Congress. It includes “back end” reform—services for prisoners—and “front end” reform—reducing sentence time. Its supporters believe that the House bill is stealing support and momentum from the more comprehensive bill.”

FSA only affects federal prisoners.

Let’s hope that, despite its limitations, it proves beneficial for incarcerated persons who seldom get second chances.




Why do mothers support incarcerated sons?

Years ago, when my 20-year old son was locked up at New York’s infamous Rikers Island, I would visit regularly despite the long commute from Brooklyn to Queens, two or three hour waits in the crowded, noisy reception area, and short, but bumpy, rides on dilapidated buses to various “houses” on the island; most times, I had just completed an 8-hour workday.

My landlord at the time–an obnoxious, nosy man–once questioned why I bothered to visit my son. “If he did the crime, I’d let him do the time.”

At the time, his words irritated me; however, in retrospect, I think his comment reflected the opinion of the public, and even, some family and friends.

Nonetheless, I had promised myself, I would not–could not–abandon my son to the custody and control of the city’s notorious jail system.

Like my former landlord, others might wonder mothers continue to support sons involved in the criminal justice system, often in the face of societal disapproval.

The answers are as varied as the mothers themselves.

One mother might have a son with a mental illness–often a factor in the commission of a crime–who worries about how he will fare in jail or prison if appropriate treatment/medication is not available.

Another mother might have a juvenile son tried as an as an adult and sentenced to time in a dangerous adult correctional facility, probably hours away from her community.

A mother could have a son who did not commit the criminal act for which he was arrested but was at the scene. She wonders why he received the same 10-year sentence as the perpetrators.

Our rationale for standing by them is simple. Our sons need advocates.

In spite of their wrong choices or bad acts, we nurture the hope that our sons’ lives can be salvaged.

For much of the public, the term, “inmate,” evokes images of violent, (mostly) black young men with gang affiliations, drug histories, broken families, or low morals.

Hence, many politicians see no need for sentencing or bail reform, increased drug rehabilitation funding, in-prison job training or educational programs. No need for comprehensive post-release assistance or services.

As mothers of incarcerated sons, we do not see our sons as state-issued ID “numbers,” but as “Junior” or “Davey,” or “Little Man.”

We remember our sons’ 6th Grade Math Award or love for animals or dream of playing for the NBA.

We are not apologists for them, but know that when wives, girlfriends, buddies, or relatives, stop visiting or communicating, we are left to bolster fragile egos.

Criminal justice research shows that when inmates lack contact with family, they are more likely to create discipline problems for prison administrators or suffer depression.

Often I was afraid to upset my son by denying him some request or by not providing everything he wanted; I had not learned that I could not save him from the hardships of prison by acceding to all his demands.

The most I could do was reassure him that he was loved and that better days were possible.

Unfortunately, in 1999, my son died prematurely in prison, so I can only imagine what his future might have held.

I take comfort in the knowledge that he knew that I was always there for him.

Having a son in prison can be all-consuming emotionally, psychologically, even physically, yet mothers muster the strength to carry on.

That’s just what we do.