5 Ways To Talk About Criminal Justice Reform At Your Family Gathering

July 2, 2020

Pint of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream on a summery picnic table

We know what it’s like. You’ve got a big gathering coming up and there’s a LOT to think about. What to wear? What about the food? Well, first of all, if you’re worried about finding the perfect outfit, we’ve got you covered. As for the food… yeah, we have a few ideas about that too.

But sometimes the hardest part about celebrating with your friends and family, or even just sitting down for a family dinner, is figuring out how to talk about things that really matter to you—especially when you know that not everyone at the table sees eye to eye.

We’re here for you. Read on for 5 ways to talk about criminal justice reform while focusing on the values that unite all of us.


  1. We All Should Get a Seat at the Table

    At the heart of any gathering is the idea that we all deserve a seat at the table and a chance to be heard. The truth is, though, that in America, some voices are NOT heard. And there are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country who can’t get a seat at the table. No other nation on earth locks up so many of its people—the US has 5% of the world’s population, but a hard-to-believe 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. The racial bias baked right into the system makes a terrible situation even worse: While Black Americans make up 13% of the population, they represent 40% of the incarcerated population. Our communities and our country suffer when so many of our friends, neighbors, and family members have no voice.

  2. We All Can See the Impact of Mass Incarceration on Families

    Look around the table—there’s a good chance that someone there has been caught up in the criminal justice system. Thanks to mass incarceration, 50% of Americans have family members who’ve been incarcerated and 6.5 million of us have an immediate family member in jail or prison at this very moment. (Black people are 50% more likely than white people to have an incarcerated family member.) It’s hard for anyone to cope with having a family member behind bars, but the private companies profiting from mass incarceration make things nightmarish for low-income families, who often have to choose between paying the bills and helping out their loved ones. Does this look or feel like justice to anyone?

  3. We All Want Kids to Be Happy

    OK, here’s one we all can agree on: Kids should have fun and feel safe and supported in school. Lots of kids do feel that way! But many students of color experience school in ways that are very different from their white peers. Here’s the truth: Black students are twice as likely to be arrested or referred to law enforcement as white students. Black students also routinely receive harsher punishments for the same or similar offenses. Overpolicing our schools doesn’t make our kids any safer—it only gets them tangled up in the criminal justice system at an early age. Let’s let kids be kids.

  4. We All Want to Feel Safe

    Doesn’t locking people up make us safe? No. The thing is, a lot of those 2.3 million incarcerated Americans we talked about earlier—hundreds of thousands of them—haven’t been convicted of a crime. They’re there because they can’t afford bail. Many others are there only because the criminal justice system is racist—Black men receive longer sentences than white men who are convicted of the exact same crime. Look, we spend $182 billion (BILLION) a year on mass incarceration—if we want to truly be safe, then we should invest that money in people, in creating jobs and improving childcare and health care and other community services, not jails and prisons.

  5. We All Want to Celebrate What Unites Us

    Don’t fear the family dinner! No matter how much we may disagree, there’s always more that unites us than divides us. If we listen to each other with an open mind, if we speak to each other honestly and respectfully, then we can start to come together. Not just as a family, or as a group of friends, but as a community—and, ultimately, as a country.

So let’s get started. Because the criminal justice system isn’t going to be transformed unless we all stand together and demand it.