Nonprofit works to combat high incarceration rates

MEMPHIS, TN (NBC) - A poverty report released earlier this week tracking the struggle in Memphis since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shed new light on incarceration rates.

The incarceration rate for African-Americans males has increased dramatically over the years.

Since 1980 it's increased 50 percent, while the number of white males has fallen.

It's something the nonprofit group Just City called troubling.

"So often a single contact with the criminal justice center can ruin someone's life and it can stay with them forever," Just City Executive Director Josh Spickler said.

The people behind Just City are striving every day to prevent just that.

Incarceration can have long-lasting effects. Spickler, who is also an attorney, cites the trouble people have applying for jobs, schools, and even getting loans.

"In the late 70's and early 80's we began to use the criminal justice system for things that it was never intended to be used for and one example would be drugs," Spickler said.

According to a "Poverty Report" by the National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis, the war on drugs in the 1980's was systematically used to create a black underclass with limited rights.

"The result of that war on drugs was increased punishment, lengthier sentences, more intense policing, more intense prosecution, and the result was an explosion of our jail and sentence population," Spickler said.

Spickler said his goal is to make the criminal justice system smaller, fairer, and more humane.

"The way we do that is by helping them clear that criminal record from their publicly available criminal history," Spickler said.

To date, Just City has helped more than 230 people expunge criminal records. They also partner with other organizations to create "Bail Funds" that get people back to their jobs, classrooms, and family while they're awaiting trial.

The goal is to reduce the number of people who come back to the criminal justice system.

"We have to quit relying on it, we have to quit expecting the criminal justice system to do things that it was never made to do," Spickler said.

Spickler said there is a direct connection between poverty, the criminal justice system, and economic opportunity, and unfortunately, those numbers in Shelby County are synonymous to those throughout the country.

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