Tanya Coke has been involved in issues of criminal justice, mass incarceration, and immigration for more than thirty years. First as a researcher at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, then as a trial attorney in the Legal Aid Society‘s Federal Defender Division, and now as director of Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice at the Ford Foundation, Coke has been actively engaged in public interest law and social justice issues and, at Ford, leads a team focused on harnessing the resources and commitment needed to combat inequality based on gender, race, class, disability, and ethnicity.
PND spoke with Coke about the foundation’s efforts to reduce the U.S. prison population, decouple the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems, and protect a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Philanthropy News Digest: Your work with the Legal Aid Society, the Open Society Institute, and the U.S. Human Rights Fund has given you the kind of frontline exposure to the criminal justice system that few people ever get. You've said you hope to use your platform at the Ford Foundation to help reduce the U.S. prison population by 20 percent by 2022. What makes you believe that goal is achievable? And what kinds of things can the foundation do over the next few years to make that goal a reality?
Tanya Coke: When I began researching criminal justice issues in the late 1980s, politicians from both parties were falling over themselves to out-tough the other on crime. It is widely believed that Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election over a flubbed debate answer over whether he would consider the death penalty if his wife were raped. It would have been hard to imagine back then that presidential candidates in 2020 would be competing to see who has the most progressive criminal justice reform platform.
That gives me hope and makes me believe we can make significant progress in taming the beast that is mass incarceration in America. Bipartisan momentum for reform is happening because of a confluence of several factors: low crime rates, tight state budgets, and a much greater understanding of how mass incarceration has decimated families and communities and made us all less safe. It is not a window that will remain open forever, however, so while it is open we have to work harder and more effectively to change not just minds about what we're doing but also hearts. That requires narrative change. It requires smart policy advocacy. And it requires more organizing in communities that are most impacted by mass incarceration.
The other thing that makes me feel optimistic is that we have seen prison populations in states like California, New York, and New Jersey drop by more than 30 percent in recent years, and in the past two years we've seen incarceration rates drop by more than 10 percent in very conservative states like Louisiana and Oklahoma. That gives me confidence we can achieve significant reductions in the incarceration rate in other states as well.
But it's not enough to focus on state prison populations. We also have to look at what’s happening in local jails, where people typically serve sentences of less than a year. While state prison populations are coming down, jail populations in many places are rising. To address the situation, we've been focusing on bail reform. Bail needlessly leads to the incarceration of people who shouldn’t be in jail, particularly poor people who don't have the wherewithal to pay cash bail. We're seeing growing awareness of that fact and momentum building across the country to do something about it. Another example is our work to effect broader change in the usual narratives about crime and criminal justice. That work takes the form of support for journalism projects, partnerships with Hollywood, and efforts to leverage other kinds of storytelling platforms, with a focus on trying to re-humanize people who are in the system and imagining a different approach to public safety.
PND: Many people have come to see the criminal justice system in the U.S. as an institutional manifestation of white supremacy. Is that an accurate characterization? And where are we as a society in terms of identifying and dismantling structural barriers to real racial equity and justice?
TC: That is the real work. There is no question that mass incarceration is driven by structural racism. To some degree it was set off by rising crime rates in the 1980s, but more than anything it has been powered by racial fear and a deep-seated instinct toward racial control of surplus labor. In my opinion, mass incarceration would not have been possible during the era of slavery because black bodies were too valuable as property in the South to let them sit idle in jail. Mass incarceration also was not possible in the 1940s or 1950s, the heyday of American manufacturing, again because black labor was needed to keep the auto factories and steel mills humming. But mass incarceration does become possible in the 1980s, after many of those manufacturing jobs had been shipped overseas and, suddenly, lots of people in black communities were forced into the underground economy of drug selling, which in turn led to a heightened, racialized fear of crime. Mass incarceration was a response not only to the advances of the civil rights movement, but also to the hollowing out of industries that employed blacks, and the racial fears that both spawned. In general, police are not comfortable with idle black men on street corners, and that fact accelerated the instinct to warehouse them in prison.
You have only to look at the difference in per capita incarceration rates in heavily black states like Louisiana, where eight hundred people per hundred thousand are incarcerated, and a homogeneous, largely white state like Vermont, where the rate is three hundred people per hundred thousand. Vermont is a state heavily affected by the opioid abuse epidemic, and yet it has made the choice not to incarcerate drug users or sellers at anything like the rate that prevails in states with large black populations such as Louisiana or Mississippi. Vermont is more inclined to treat opiod abuse as a public health problem.
In general, I think our field has not thought enough about the relationship between criminal justice, the control of labor, and the many ways in which black people in the United States have, in effect, become surplus labor. This has implications for social control as well as the rise of corporate interests that are profiting from mass incarceration. It's an under-studied area, and one where we need more research and advocacy to ensure that vulnerable people are reintegrated in a meaningful way into the economy.
PND: How has the current political environment complicated your efforts to address abuses in the criminal justice system with respect to immigrants?
TC: The Trump administration's attack on all forms of immigration, legal and otherwise, has meant that many of our grantees have had to expend an enormous amount of time and energy in defense of their clients and constituents. From the Muslim ban to separating children from their parents at the border, the administration's aim is to sow chaos and confusion. And our grantees have had to respond both on the ground and at the policy level. That said, there's also a pretty broad consensus among people on both sides of the debate that our current immigration system is broken.
PND: What would a reasonable, realistic immigration policy for the United States look like?
TC: I'll leave the details of that to the experts. But overall, we would like to see a system that recognizes the humanity of migrants and refugees and treats them with compassion. We'd like to see a system that recognizes that people do not lose their rights or dignity because they're fleeing persecution or seeking a better life for their families. And we expect that our country eventually will move toward a system that comports more closely with its values, as well as with the reality that our economy needs the labor and ingenuity of immigrants.
In the meantime, we're focusing on one aspect of the system that is especially harmful and where we see potential for change: the criminalization of immigration. We want to see the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems decoupled. For nearly a century, immigration in this country has been a civil matter and largely a matter of labor demand. But over the past few years, the federal government and nativist forces have turned immigration into a criminal matter. We're criminally prosecuting people for simply crossing the border or seeking asylum, and we're doing it in ways that are excessively punitive — even though we already have a civil court system that addresses immigration violations. Illegal entry has become the most prosecuted crime in the entire federal system, and we're talking about people with no charges or criminal convictions, other than gaining entry to the U.S. without proper authorization.
We and our grantees strongly believe that local police should not be in the business of enforcing federal immigration law. It damages police-community relations, it leads to racial profiling, and it makes communities less safe by deterring immigrants from seeking police protection and emboldening those who victimize them. So we are working to try to make immigration enforcement systems more accountable and subject to greater oversight. At the moment, more dollars are spent on immigration enforcement than on all other federal enforcement activities combined. We want to make sure those dollars are well spent, and that there is a mechanism to hold agencies accountable when violations occur.
PND: Several states in the South and the Midwest have recently passed so-called "fetal heartbeat" bills that, if they survive a court challenge, will effectively eliminate a woman's right to an abortion in those states. Are those bills — and the broader effort to re-litigate a woman's right to choose — something the foundation is paying attention to? And what would you say to women who are alarmed by those legislative efforts?
TC: Yes, absolutely we're paying attention. In fact, in the last several years we have made reproductive freedom the center of our portfolio in anticipation of the kind of legislation we're seeing now. Women across the country have good reason to be alarmed, even though these laws will be challenged in court. In fact, we anticipate that a case challenging the constitutionality of a woman's right to choose will make it to the Supreme Court within the next twelve months.
What we're seeing is the culmination of many years of work by anti-abortion forces to chip away at women's reproductive rights. In many states today, there is only a single abortion clinic left, so while women might have a constitutional right to abortion in principle, they have little or no access to abortion services in reality. And what we're seeing with this latest slate of bills is making de jure what already is a de facto loss of rights for women.
Of course, poor women, especially poor women of color, will be most affected by a ban on abortion — both in terms of a denial of access to abortion services and the criminalization of women and doctors who seek or provide them. In this moment of crisis, we've been working more closely with other funders to align our giving and strategy in high-need states. It's important at this critical moment to strike the right balance between directing funds to organizations that are focused on women of color, organizations like Women with a Vision in Louisiana and Southerners on New Ground in Georgia, and that are on the frontline of some of these battles and national litigation, and policy shops like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights.
But we also need broader mobilization efforts that embolden ordinary women and men to speak up. We need to hear from the millions of women who've had abortions, whose daughters have sought an abortion, as well as the men who, with their partners, were able to postpone having a family until they were ready. The anti-abortion forces have turned what is a private decision into a cultural issue and stigmatized it. Yet more than 60 percent of Americans support the right to safe and legal abortion. And a significant part of our work over the next few years will be focused on making it safe for people to say so.
— Matt Sinclair