“Crimes are a moment in time. They’re not a person.”: An Interview with Joshua Hoe

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Despite the current rise in wide-spread public support for criminal justice reform, advocacy aimed at humanizing people who have committed violent crimes ― particularly sex crimes ― remains largely taboo and politically unpalatable. The First Step Act, the first restorative criminal justice reform to pass federally in over 40 years, excluded those convicted of violent and sex offenses from sentencing reduction and rewards for taking part in rehabilitation programs. Meanwhile, calls for more aggressive policing and more punitive responses to sex crimes have found renewed support, particularly with the #MeToo movement, despite the fact that people convicted of sex offenses are less likely to reoffend post-incarceration than people convicted of other crimes.   

As the founder of the podcast Decarceration Nation, Joshua Hoe explores issues of criminal justice reform and seeks to humanize prisoners, regardless of their crimes, in the hopes of moving toward a restorative, rather than punitive, system. In 2010, Hoe pleaded guilty to sex crimes and was sentenced to three years in a Michigan state prison. Since serving his sentence, he has become an advocate for compassion for the excarcerated as they return to society. 

Amanda Knox

Can you give a brief introduction of yourself?

Joshua B. Hoe 

Sure. I’m a formerly incarcerated person who lives in Michigan. I’ve been an activist for probably six or seven years now. I’m also a policy analyst at Safe & Just Michigan and the host of the Decarceration Nation podcast. 

Amanda Knox 

So what is your origin story? How did you become wrapped up in the criminal justice system?

Joshua B. Hoe 

It’s probably a little bit atypical. General people who get caught up in the criminal justice system are younger and usually people of color. I was 42 years old when I got arrested. I had been saying and doing a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have been doing online. They caught me, because I wasn’t exactly sneaky about it, and I ended up having to do three years in prison and a couple years on parole and probation. The vast majority of the work I do is based in the injustice I saw all around me throughout my time in and after prison. 

Amanda Knox  

Are there any aspects of criminal justice reform that you see falling under the radar that should be given more attention and more thorough consideration by the general public?

Joshua B. Hoe

At the heart I think people get very confused. There’s been a lot of bad messaging about what really causes mass incarceration. A lot of people think it’s private prisons. Less than 9% of people who are incarcerated are in private prisons. That’s not to say it isn’t a problem, but it’s not a central problem of mass incarceration. A lot of people think marijuana is a huge part of mass incarceration. It’s not at all. Very few people in the United States are incarcerated for marijuana. They may have a charge of marijuana among other charges, but that is not their sole charge, and that’s not the reason that they’re in prison. What people don’t realize is that the real problem of mass incarceration is long, indeterminate sentences. That’s rarely the part that people actually focus on. What people like to focus on is the stuff that’s politically palatable and sounds good or makes good copy. My friends over at the University of Michigan did a study, JJ Prescott and Sonia Starr, and they found that of people who are over 50 who are serving time for a violent crime and have done at least five years, their chance of recidivism upon release is less than 1%. I don’t think that most of the public understands that that’s the case. They think it’s the exact opposite, because we’ve spent 30 years telling people that every single person in prison is Hannibal Lecter. Less than 3% of people in prisons are a sociopath, and we treat it like 100%. That’s just not the case. I’m friends with so many people who committed what would be considered horrible crimes. I’m sure a lot of people think my crime was horrible. I don’t think it was great, either, but I’ve seen people change and do a lot of work to try to make their communities better, to help save people’s lives, and that’s because crimes are a moment in time. They’re not a person. We tend to think that if someone has done something, that means that it defines them forever. And that’s, in my experience, just not the case. 

Amanda Knox  

What memories stick with you from your time in prison?

Joshua B. Hoe 

The unbelievable brutality all around you at all times. The deprivation, the lack of caring for human life. The pitting people, all against all, 24/7. I mean, there’s so many things. Most of the time I was incarcerated I was at a level one, which is, in a lot of ways, the most violent, because you have the most people in the smallest amount of space with the least supervision. I lived in what are called pole barns. They’re open spaces with 160 people. It’s just warehousing and an incredibly terrible way to keep people. Every day, there were brutal things that I saw, from people just randomly getting beaten down or stabbed, to correctional officers doing terrible things. I mean, it’s almost too much to explain, you know?

Amanda Knox

What new perspective did you walk away with after your incarceration?

Joshua B. Hoe 

Before I even got to incarceration, just walking into a courtroom and seeing the docket for the day and noticing that one public defender was seeing 30 people in one day, you just start to have some real questions about what justice means in our country. You’d have to be willfully blind to walk into a jail or prison in the United States and not immediately see the racial disparity. The radical indifference of the system to the problems that the people in the system face, from addiction to mental health issues. When I was first in jail, they asked me how was I feeling, and I said I was a little down, and they took that to mean that I was suicidal and moved me into that 24-hour mental health ward. I was on 23-hour lockdown, basically solitary confinement, for a few days. You’d get out for an hour and I met a guy who was right next to me who had been in solitary confinement for over a year awaiting his trial with a serious mental health issue. And you just think about how in the world, in any way, shape, or form, is that making the outcome better? I mean, how does that help a mental health problem? I mean, this person is literally living by himself 23 hours a day, with nothing to do and nowhere to go for over a year, who’s really struggling with a mental health issue, and that’s the reason they’re in jail in the first place. It’s pretty brutal.

Amanda Knox  

When and how did you develop the Decarceration Nation podcast?

Joshua B. Hoe 

I wish there was a better story. I had just gotten out and I was off of paper for the first time, meaning I was no longer on parole and probation. And so I was really hustling and just trying to find things that I could do, because I didn’t have a career. I’d lost pretty much everything by getting arrested. So I was trying all kinds of things and one of the things I was doing was writing about television. I got asked to be on a podcast about a show called Mr. Robot, and I never really considered doing a podcast before, but someone had given me a microphone, it’s actually the same one I’m using right now, and I did and it went really well. And I was like, “Hey, maybe I could do this, but what would I do it about?” And then I was like, “Oh, obviously, I’ve only got like 400 million things I’d love to say about the criminal justice system. So I’ll start talking about that.”

Amanda Knox

Is there an overarching goal or mission that you’re trying to accomplish with the podcast? Or is it just continuously pulling back layers and looking at the criminal justice system from different angles?

Joshua B. Hoe  

It’s a combination of three things. Examining the criminal justice system from a lot of angles. I believe deeply that really, in this country, a majority of people either have been incarcerated, know somebody who’s incarcerated, or are related to someone who’s incarcerated. And so my concept for the podcast was to start to build relationships with all the people across the country, to really start to be one of the people trying to bring people together on our side, so that we can be more effective when we’re lobbying for change. And a third thing that I was trying to do is educate the general public. There’s so many things that anyone who’s been incarcerated understands that people who have never been incarcerated just don’t get. And that’s true from before you go to prison, through sentencing, through every aspect of being in prison or jail, and then reentry.

Amanda Knox 

Why does the way that anyone talks about the criminal justice system matter?

Joshua B. Hoe 

I can’t really say for sure that it does matter. It is my hope that if I’m persuasive, and if the people that I interview are persuasive, that people will become interested in changing the system. That’s the hope. I’ve certainly been involved in a lot of legislative change. Since I’ve been out, I was one of the people who’s really working on messaging to help pass the First Step Act. I helped work to pass Raise the Age here in Michigan. I’ve been working very hard to try to pass a package called Clean Slate, which is an attempt to clear people’s records here in the state of Michigan. And then we’re also working on trying to implement 18 recommendations from the task force on jails and pretrial incarceration. That was something that the Governor put together two years ago here in Michigan. All of those things have been surprisingly successful. One of the things that I’ve realized is that criminal justice is one of the few things that really doesn’t have a politics, in the sense that I have just as many friends on the right and the left who are passionate about this issue. And the reason is because so many people are impacted by it. Once you’ve seen behind the curtain, you know the Emperor has no clothes. It’s a really terrible system and it produces terrible outcomes. So wherever you’re coming from, whether you’d be a radical progressive or conservative, there’s things that we can easily agree with. And in this country right now, that’s a rare thing. I really enjoy being in a space where we really do have discussions about the issues and not necessarily about politics.

Amanda Knox  

Today, we’re seeing millions of Americans from all over the United States coming together, calling for a radical reimagining of the criminal justice system. What do you think about all of this?

Joshua B. Hoe  

There’s just no doubt that there are a lot of problems with policing in the United States. There’s a lot of problems with every aspect of the criminal justice system. And most of it starts with race. It’s very exciting that not just hardcore activists are out in the street, but that people of every creed and color, and just tens of thousands of people in every city, are out there for day after day after day asking for the same thing. It’s incredibly exciting. And it’s also frustrating. One of the things that’s really frustrated me is the coverage talking about “defund the police.” One of the real centers of this movement is the idea that people should have representation. If you’re going to do a story about criminal justice reform, you should interview impacted people. And one of the things that’s been happening, I turned on the TV yesterday on MSNBC, and the host was interviewing Bill Bratton, a former police commissioner, about what “defund” means. To me that’s incredibly immoral. It’s bad reporting, because it’s essentially letting the people who are being critiqued define what the critique means. All I’ve seen is legislators and law enforcement defining on television to the public what protesters and longtime activists and abolitionists have been fighting for for years, and no one’s letting them speak in their own voice. Our movement is, if nothing else, about people being able to speak in their own voice. 

Amanda Knox 

How else does the media fail to talk about the criminal justice system in a responsible and productive way?

Joshua B. Hoe

Oh, my goodness. So many ways. I think the most damaging one overall, anytime we pass a new piece of reform legislation, they’ll take the first case of recidivism and they’ll act like that means that the reform is a failure, and they’ll blow it up. Probably the best example of this was bail reform in New York. Right after bail reform went into effect, there was a lady named Tiffany Harris who had some mental health challenges, and she slapped a couple people who were Jewish and said something that was anti-semitic. A couple weeks before that, there had been some really serious violence against people who were Jewish, and the press turned that act of her getting out on bail and slapping a few people into, “See, bail reform means that Jewish people are going to get killed.” What’s happened is there’s a weird connection between this new kind of media, where they have a real pressure to get stories out and they don’t have a lot of time to do investigations, and the police and prosecutors who are willing to feed them information. It’s an unholy relationship a lot of the time. And so the press constantly runs these stories. But what you have to do is look at recidivism rates prior to reform and compare them to recidivism rates after reform, and then see which is better. Most of the research I’ve read suggests that in 34 states across the nation, as reform has happened, crime has continued to decline and even accelerated in the decline. So reform really hasn’t increased crime, which is the argument they continue to make, and they use these anecdotal examples to kind of blow people’s fear centers in their brains. It’s really frustrating and very immoral.

Amanda Knox  

I’m thinking about this one piece that I read where you were criticizing a USA Today headline from last year. The “Federal Inmates Feast On Cornish Hens, Steak as Prison Guards Labor Without Pay.”

Joshua B. Hoe 

At the time we had a budget shutdown, and the correctional officers union was trying to make the argument that, “How dare prisoners get their holiday meals at a time when we are not getting paid.” The first reason it’s immoral: it’s not prisoners’ fault that they’re not getting paid. That has to do with politics and most prisoners in the United States don’t even have an ability to vote. It had nothing to do with prisoners. And secondly, anyone who has done time knows that food in prison is on the whole terrible. It’s awful beyond belief. And once a year, or twice a year, you get a nice meal by the standards of what you’re used to in prison. They were insinuating that the correct thing would have [been] to take away that meal. There’s just so few things that people get to experience that allow them a few seconds of feeling even remotely human in a place where there is very little humanity. The idea that a bunch of correctional officers would use that really bothered me a great deal. It was just a cheap shot, and I just want to push back and let people know that there’s a good reason why people who are incarcerated get maybe one or two good meals a year. 

Amanda Knox  

How have you been thinking about the coronavirus pandemic in the work that you’re doing?

Joshua B. Hoe  

In Michigan, it’s been a terrible experience since the COVID crisis broke. We’ve had 68 people who are incarcerated die from COVID and we’ve had 303,967 people who tested positive. And unfortunately, when you’re incarcerated and you find out that you have sickness, you almost always get moved into a solitary unit. It’s caused a lot of problems. One of the things that people don’t understand is that, if you’re in a cube ― like I was saying earlier, I was in a building with 160 people. That building was split into eight-person cubes. Those eight people in my cube don’t want to be put in segregation. So say I get sick. They don’t want me to report that I’m sick because that could mean all of them get tested and they can be moved, too. And so there’s all these competing pressures that make sickness, in a place where you can’t do social distancing, very challenging, and really emotional, and can cause a lot of problems. So you’ve got the problems of actually being sick. You’ve got the social problems from the environment you’re in. You’ve got the correctional officers and they’re not really dealing with it well enough, because a lot of people are dying. It’s been a terrible experience. It’s been incredibly depressing to get the reports every day and hear about more people dying that you care about, or at least I care about. What we tried to do is, for several months, we put together a Twitter storm where we’d have hundreds of people using the same hashtag, asking the governor to please commute more people who were old and infirm, make more people eligible for parole, expand the parole board. We had a bunch of different demands. And we really worked here. Unfortunately, nothing came of it. One of the organizations I’m involved with, Nation Outside, did a driving protest around the Capitol that went really well and got some press coverage. But it’s been really frustrating because we’ve all been very unified, we’ve all been working very hard, we based all of our recommendations on the best medical and scientific research on recidivism, etc. and still we’re not able to get very much done. 

Amanda Knox 

Do you think that society is ready to reconsider people who have committed violent crimes or sex offenses?

Joshua B. Hoe  

I think it must be more likely than it has been in the past. We did a webinar just about two weeks ago on how we need to get rid of sex offender registration, and over 1000 people watched it, and we got very little negative comments, which was really surprising. A couple of years ago, when I first started doing this work, I would get blasted. People would pile on me about what a terrible person I was and posting my mug shot and doing everything they could to try to discredit me. Things have changed a lot. There’s still a lot of those people out there, but there’s an awful lot more people who are willing to listen. Because I think a very large percentage of the population understands that a lot of this is nonsense, that it’s not based on evidence, that it’s not based on anything aside from fear. A lot of our laws are created in moments of moral panic, and they aren’t based on evidence. Our entire sentencing structure is made up. There’s no basis for any length of sentence we give people; it’s just made up by the people who write the laws. 

Amanda Knox

Any final thoughts?

Joshua B. Hoe 

Everybody wants to feel like they’re in a society where they can be safe. The best way to ensure that society is safe is to look at ways to create good outcomes. What we do right now has nothing to do with creating good outcomes. It’s just incapacitation. It makes the situation worse. We’ve invested a ton of resources in systems that just don’t work. We should really start working on trying to highlight what does work. If someone’s got a mental health struggle, let’s find ways to fix the mental health struggle. If someone’s struggling with addiction, let’s find ways to fix the addiction. If someone is down on their luck, let’s not put them in jail. Let’s find a way to deal with the problem. We just have to start being outcomes-focused instead of punishment-focused, in my opinion.