Piper Kerman's time behind bars has been publicized for the world to consume, whether through her book, "Orange is the New Black," or the award-winning Netflix show based on it. But Kerman is also using the popularity around that story as an entry point to speak out about the need for criminal justice reform.
On Tuesday, the 47-year-old visited Grand Rapids to give a lecture at the Fountain Street Church on behalf of Humanity for Prisoners, a local nonprofit that offers legal, medical and spiritual help to those locked up.
"There are so many things we can do to reform the prison system in this country," she said.
Among Kerman’s ideas: "common sense" sentences, court reform and transforming the juvenile justice system.
"We have very harsh and punitive sentences," Kerman said. "We see that when we look at women and girls in the system, we see that in things like juvenile life without parole. We need 'common sense' sentences."
She is particularly concerned about the ways the courts treat the most marginalized, particularly the impoverished, saying, "In this country, you'll be treated better if you are rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.”
But she asks for the greatest change when it comes to children, even calling for the end of youth prisons.
"We have to think differently about the way we treat kids," she said. "We should abolish youth prisons. When a kid does something wrong, we should hold them accountable within the community," Kerman said.
She noted that all people, not just those who were formerly imprisoned or have loved ones behind bars, should be concerned with criminal justice reform.
"If we're going to have the largest prison population in the world, more Americans should think about it. More Americans should be contributing to the decision about whether that's really a good thing," she said.