Kwanzaa is celebrated every year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. It is a weeklong celebration devoted to honoring African culture and traditions among those of us living in the diaspora. During the seven days of Kwanzaa, people come together to study seven core principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

What I am hoping is that, starting this year, the spirit and principles of Kwanzaa will be adopted into the movement for criminal justice reform and the true liberation of Black people in the U.S. 

Today, too many of our loved ones are separated from their families due to our nation’s reliance on mass incarceration. Specifically, too many Black people in Florida are locked away in prison and cannot celebrate Kwanzaa with their loved ones. While Black people make up 17 percent of Florida’s population, we make up 47 percent of the state’s prison population. Too many others are in county jails. Studies have shown that Black people are often sentenced to longer, harsher sentences than white people convicted of the same crime. 

Florida’s prison population and its outrageous racial disparities are an emergency that needs reform now.

That situation is exacerbated by Florida’s minimum mandatory sentencing policies that require judges to send people to prison for much longer terms than those judges might consider reasonable. Florida also requires that anyone sentenced to prison for a felony serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, no matter what they do while in prison to rehabilitate themselves. Every year, 650,000 people will rejoin their communities after finishing their prison sentence. The point of prison is to prepare people to be more successful contributing members of their communities, but the truth is we do next to nothing right now to adequately prepare people to leave prison and be successful. 

We are continuing a horrifying cycle of rotating people in and out of prison because our lawmakers do not have the courage to make criminal justice reform a priority in Florida and across the nation. 

Reform bills will be presented during the coming legislative session to undo all these injustices that have caused widespread economic and social inequity among Black people. If we were to apply the principles of Kwanzaa to the movement for criminal justice reform, such as self-determination, collective work and responsibility and purpose, we might be able to pass measures that allow currently incarcerated people to partake in educational and job training programs to earn rehabilitation credits they can utilize towards reducing their sentence. If we applied the principles of unity, creativity and faith, we could reduce mandatory minimum sentences and also end the practice of suspending of driver’s licenses for non-driving offenses or inability to pay. If we applied the principle of cooperative economics, we could save the millions of taxpayer dollars it costs to incarcerate people in prison and invest that money instead in communities, providing more public services, job training programs and educational programs.  

The upcoming legislative session starts in January, soon after Kwanzaa ends. Those celebrating Kwanzaa should continue to honor the principles of the holiday by reaching out to their lawmakers and supporting these important criminal reform measures that honor these important principles. 

I encourage you to go online and look up the contact information for the members of the Florida Legislature who represent your district and be ready to reach out to them. Also try to attend any meetings those lawmakers convene in your districts and make your voices heard. Keep an eye out for criminal justice reform rallies in your area and participate if you can.

All of these racist and discriminatory policies listed above need to be reformed. As we celebrate Kwanzaa again this year, we should remember that the seven core principles — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith — directly affect the movement to reform our broken criminal justice system and bring true liberation to Black people in America.

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