My first encounter with the word downsizing was when my mother was laid off from her long-time job as a records management clerk. Bill Clinton was in his first term as president and the infamous 1994 Crime Bill was passing through Congress with bipartisan support. My mother called home from somewhere in Manhattan, distressed. She said, “Marlon, I lose meh job oday. These people lay me off after over 20 years, yuh know, after slaving and travelling quite in White Plains at 5 o’clock every morning … I doh know what I’m gonna do now.”
Like any curious 14-year-old, I asked, “Why they let you go?” She responded with an undertone of cynicism: “They said they need to downsize, so they let me go.”
“Mommy, what does downsize mean?”
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Since my overly expensive degree in Organizational Behavior from NYU, I’ve learned that not all downsizing is as bad as what happened to my mother.
According to the Harvard Business Review, proponents of downsizing argue that it is an effective strategy, with benefits such as increased performance and sales. Stepping out of Business 101 is decarceration, the downsizing of incarceration to reduce the scale and reach of the criminal justice system. It’s time to start now, especially as violent crime is down in most cities and lawmakers weigh the decriminalization of many offenses, such as drug possession/use and sex work.
Downsizing means police should not be mental health first responders. They need mental health treatment. They need help. Police officer suicides in 2018 were the highest ever, with 228 officers dying by suicide. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, believes the 228 number “is undoubtedly underreported.” Probation and parole officers are not substance abuse counselors or employment specialists.
And all of this is okay because we don’t need them to be. They just need to get themselves healthy, and rightsizing should be an option. We already have proficient social workers, mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors, and employment specialists who are not utilized enough or funded appropriately.
The criminal justice system is a discordant machine of more than 55,000 criminal justice-related agencies nationwide inclusive of police, courts, district attorney offices, jails, prisons, parole and probation boards, and ecarceration. I’m sure I’ve missed a few here, but the point is that America’s criminal justice reform intoxication should include more than reducing the number of people in prisons or the amount of lockups closed: It should mean fewer institutions of incarceration, too.
Downsizing in this context means relieving some institutions of their duties and giving them a severance package that will allow them to take care of their own house.
Our tax dollars pay the bill of more than $270 billion to keep the criminal justice system intact. If the criminal justice system were a country, it would be 41st on the GDP tally of 186 countries. We — and I mean “we,” because “We, the People” allow for this profane, ineffective, and inefficient use of resources — currently have open-air incarceration, where about 4.5 million people live under some form of community supervision, alongside the 2.3 million people in prisons. We spend $29 billion on the federal law enforcement budget (#99 on the GDP tally). We have 70 million people in the U.S., not incarcerated, but living freeish with a criminal conviction.
Amid this display of laissez-faire governance, there is progress to soberly consider. Bail reform in several states is decreasing the debtor’s prison construct. Restorative justice models are sprouting up across the country, effectively decreasing exposure to all points of the criminal punishment system. Progressive judges like Victoria Pratt “sentenced” people who came before her court to write essays, instead of lockup. Law enforcement administrators from across the country have been meeting as Executives Transforming Parole & Probation (EXiT) to operationalize the downsizing of their reach and their caseloads. In their “Statement on the Future of Probation & Parole in the United States,” they assert: “As people who run or have run community supervision throughout the country and others concerned with mass supervision, we call for probation and parole to be substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable and restorative.”
Several years ago, when I was a violence interrupter for the Cure Violence program in Brooklyn, New York, I spoke at an intimate convening of community residents, police, and elected officials. During my comments, I said my job is to figure out ways to put myself out of work. My work was to reduce shootings in the area of Brooklyn where the violence interrupter program operated. Even then, I understood that any person or institution engaged in intervention work should hope that their interventions are no longer needed. The criminal justice system is an operation of interventions ostensibly created to deal with violations of the societal contract. Because of the disproportionate use of these interventions on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian Pacific Islander populations, we understand that we have a racialized system of control.
White supremacy aside for a moment (as if it is ever possible to put the ideology of white supremacy in timeout), the 55,000 agencies of the criminal punishment system, e.g., the courts, law enforcement, and community supervision, should keep a humbling view of themselves. They should be working to put themselves out of business. They need to see downsizing as a means to community efficacy.
Since my mother’s untimely dismissal from her job, our family figured it out, like most working-class families. We pooled our resources together. My mother still has a few choice four-letter words in her Trinidadian accent to describe the process of being laid off. I assume the 55,000 criminal justice agencies will also have a vulgar reaction to real downsizing. But I am sure those of us in communities that are involuntarily cuffed to the criminal punishment system will also find a way to pool our resources together to create safe neighborhoods we all deserve.