A fair and adequate criminal justice system is fundamental to any civilized society. Although the founding fathers of the United States tried to account for many problems of statehood, there were some things no one could have foreseen in the early days of our democracy. The policies and practices that were set up to disenfranchise poor black and brown communities have undeniably had a profound effect on our current criminal justice intuitions.
Today, the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats seems to get larger and larger by the minute. When we stop seeking common ground, compromises over simple issues become a thing of the past. Notions of fairness and justice have now become points of division.
Yet, it does not have to be. In fact, last year the ACLU released a new public opinion poll showing growing national support for criminal justice reform across both ideological and political spectrums. 91% of Americans agreed that "the criminal justice system has problems that need fixing." Some of the issues in our criminal justice system are easy to identify and have simple solutions. Others will require more research and political willpower to enact the complex solutions needed. Regardless, we must first come to a consensus that reform is not only necessary but crucial to ensuring the rights and civil liberties of all people.
Criminal Justice Reform: A Bipartisan Issue
Criminal justice reform is, at its core, not a partisan issue. Ultimately, the injustice of one is an injustice of all. The United States is home to the world's largest incarceration population despite only having the world's fifth largest population. According to the Sentencing Project—a DC-based advocacy and research center working to address criminal justice reform—in the last 40 years the nation's prisons and jails have increased over 500%.
These increases happened during the same time period when crime rates have been dropping, especially for violent crimes. The culprit behind our nation's swelling prison ranks lies in the laws and policies that have been enacted since the 1980s, the War on Drugs and mandatory sentencing. In order to understand how to correct these horrendous flaws present in today's current criminal justice system, we must first understand their history. These two policies represented major turning points in how our justice system operated.
The War On Drugs
The War on Drugs officially began in 1982 and included a series of law enforcement mandates and changes in policy sentencing. President Ronald Reagan's administration pushed police departments to crack down on drugs, dealers, and users. As a result, drug-related offenses in the U.S. grew exponentially from 40,900 in 1980 to over 450,000 in 2017. The policies from the War on Drugs were also that much more impactful when combined with mandatory sentencing laws that had those who struggled with mental health issues or addiction thrown in jail or prison rather than given mental health care.
During the 1980s there was a series of new, harsher, mandatory sentencing that completely stripped the human element out of sentencing. No longer could a judge issue a sentencing decision unique to the offender's situation, background, or mental health. Instead, even the smallest amounts of drugs were given minimum jail or prison time. Besides mandatory sentencing, there has also been an unprecedented rise in sentencing offenders to life sentences. Over 50,000 prisoners are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.150,000 more are serving life sentences. Abolishing these two issues above will not immediately resolve all the current problems present in the criminal justice system, but it is a start.
We also need to revisit and discuss exactly what are the overarching goals of our criminal justice system. There is a real need to protect citizens from dangerous criminals who pose significant threats to society. However, in the process of doing this we must not forget that, for many, the primary aim should be rehabilitation rather than imprisonment. Not only does imprisonment dehumanize our fellow citizens, but it also is an extreme waste of human capital. Human capital that could be much better spent contributing to society rather than costing it.
Reforming Law Enforcement and the Justice System
There are many factors and outside influences that contribute to the problems within the criminal justice system. This includes law enforcement itself. Harmful human flaws such as racial profiling and stereotypes have engulfed public opinions of law enforcement. There has been a growing distrust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
In order to improve this relationship and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, there must be a concerted focus on reforming police practices. Some steps towards achieving adequate law enforcement reform include:
The way law enforcement interacts and engages with the public is often the first point of contact many individuals have with the criminal justice system. Civil unrest and distrust are unavoidable if it is commonly believed that law enforcement is not out to protect and serve the community, but rather serve their own interests and protect "their own." Police accountability has to be at the forefront of law enforcement reform. We must focus on creating systems that ensure a check on police practices. Law enforcement is just one of many aspects to criminal justice reform, other key players also include the current cash-bail bonds system.
Cash-Bail Bond System
In the world, only two countries possess a cash-bail bonds system: the Philippines and the United States. In the current criminal justice system before going to court a judge sets a bail amount. If the defendant cannot pay the requested bail amount on their own, a bail bondsman can front the money to the defendant, usually charging exorbitant interest rates. If one cannot post bail, for whatever reason, they must remain in jail until the time of their trial date. This system encourages innocent defendants to accept plea deals rather than pay out money they don't have for bail or sit in jail for months awaiting trial.
According to a Department of Justice report in 2014, 6-in-10 people in jail were not actually convicted, but rather simply awaiting trial. Not only does this system disproportionately targets poor people, but it also is racially discriminatory with black men being twice as likely to have bond set on them and for that bond to be higher—even for the same crime.
As the evidence becomes clearer, many judges are taking note and limiting the number of bails they set. This has had a tremendous impact on not only individual lives but also reducing overhead housing cost and overcrowding for jails. There are other steps to help prevent the injustice that has spawned out of the current cash-bail bonds systems such as: banning money bail, improving data-driven assessments, and rewriting statutes more appropriately.
Countless studies have found that money bonds do not work as an adequate incentive for people to show up to their court appearance. Some research has even shown that those who don't return to court after promising to without bail requirements are just as likely to appear as those who've posted bond. Using data-driven assessments is also another way to assist judges when determining the public safety risk of an offender and whether they may need drug or mental health treatment.
Finally, rewriting statues so that police can issue citations for low-level offenses rather than taking offenders into custody will enable courts to process cases faster. Using citations with more low-level offenses will also ensure that detaining individuals isn't used as a ploy to force defendants to accept plea bargains out of fear for losing their jobs or not being able to fulfill other obligations.
Rehabilitation And Support For The Formerly Incarcerated
Every year, more than 600,000 people leave the U.S. prison system. Yet, even after serving their time, there are often other barriers that prevent a full reintegration back into society and their communities. A big contributing factor is how the current parole system has been arranged and the inherent flaws within it. For many, parole and probation work more to re-felonize than rehabilitate.
For example, an individual's parole may include certain travel restrictions that prevent them from seeing their loved ones or family members who may depend on them. Other rules sometimes prevent these individuals from associating with other felons. This might seem like common sense for rehabilitation, but, when multiple family members might be former felons, following parole conditions can be terribly complicated and restrictive. Citizens being reintegrated into society also face additional challenges such as:
Another important issue facing the formerly incarcerated is the restoration of voting rights. Depending on the state you live, ex-felons may not be eligible to vote until their probation or parole is completed. Some states do not allow any ex-convicts to vote regardless of time served and time rehabilitated. For some individuals, this means decades of voting rights being denied.
When combined with the War on Drugs and the excessive policing and sentencing in poor communities of color, the political repercussions are massive. This fundamental, constitutional right should not be infringed upon. It is for this reason that many people push hard to restore the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated.
Criminal justice reform should be at the forefront of political candidates future policy, regardless of political affiliation. Increasing support from the public has demonstrated that we can no longer ignore criminal justice reform, police accountability, and fixing institutionalized structures that prevent justice. Candidates wishing to connect with their future constituents must incorporate common sense criminal justice reforms into their proposed policies. For more information on current events and other policy issues, visit thespinningglobe.com