• 2.3 million prisoners: That is how many Americans are currently incarcerated, but that’s’ not the whole picture. Americans “go to jail” 10.6 million times a year.
  • #1 in the world: With only 5% of the world’s population, America holds ¼ of the world’s incarcerated population in its prisons. The U.S. has higher incarceration rates that countries we consider to have more dubious human rights records like Russia, China, and El Salvador.
  • 700% increase in 50 years: Tough on crime and war on drugs initiatives kickstarted a stunning increase in incarceration starting in 1970.
  • 555,000 pretrial detentions: Prohibitively high bail practices result in hundreds of thousands of people being locked up without being convicted or sentenced for a crime.

What Is Criminal Justice Reform?

Criminal justice reform is the practice of shifting away from overly harsh or punitive or prescriptive consequences for criminal acts and towards prevention, treatment, and restoration.

It helps to think of the criminal justice system like a web, rather than a conveyor belt that goes from crime to court to prison. At the center of this web is the individual, who may experience trauma, socio-economic conditions, racial disparities, substance abuse, and educational, behavioral, or mental health challenges. An increased, front-end focus on prevention and deflection is one very important part of this web of reform. When at-risk youth and adults do become justice involved, the web of reform expands to include appropriate legal representation, diversion, informed sentencing, and treatment and support that addresses the specific needs of the individual. The outer edge of the web of reform are the reentry programs that connect individuals to opportunities and community that lead to success and reduce recidivism.

The overarching goal of criminal justice reform is to reduce the effects of mass incarceration on individuals and on our society as a whole.

How Can Criminal Justice Reform Happen?

With millions behind bars and $80 billion a year spent just on correctional facilities, liberals and conservatives are aligned in pushing for criminal justice reform. Their approaches to reform differ as much as their understanding of how we got in this mess. At the grassroots level, however, politics takes a backseat to purposeful action.

A Liberal View on Criminal Justice Reform

The liberal view of the criminal justice system is laid out in detail by the New York Times bestselling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This view stands upon the idea that the system of racial injustice that began with slavery has continued through to the modern day by criminalizing behavior of the black community and profiting off the labor of inmates. Politics and policies aimed to disenfranchise voters, tough on crime initiatives targeted black communities, and media and political messaging antagonized age-old stereotypes and fears paving the way for discriminatory social policies.

The contrast between how the U.S. and Portugal responded to the introduction of crack cocaine in the1980s exemplifies how attitudes affect outcomes. Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs enacted stricter and harsher penalties for crack, prevalent in black communities, over powder cocaine, prevalent in white communities. By 1991, 1 in 4 young black men in the U.S. were either locked up or otherwise involved in the justice system. In contrast, Portugal decriminalized drug possession and poured its resources into treatment and prevention. Steep declines in drug abuse, drug addiction, and drug-related crime followed.

Discriminatory sentencing extends well beyond the scope of the War on Drugs. Black and Latino Americans make up nearly 60% of the prison population, while they are only 30% of the overall population. They are 55% of prisoners serving drug conviction and 48% of those with “virtual” life sentences. But, it begins before they enter court. In a report to the United Nations, The Sentencing Project spells out how urban poverty collides with predictive policing policies, like New York’s “stop and frisk,” to target young black men and bring them into contact with a justice system that shows preferential treatment to wealthy offenders able to afford vigorous defense counsel.

A Conservative View on Criminal Justice Reform

In his book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, John Pfaff argues against the case laid out above. He contends that it is not the War on Drugs, draconian sentencing guidelines, or privatization of prisons driving the dramatic phenomenon of mass incarceration. Rather, his case largely lays blame at the feet of prosecutors. In his view, prosecutors are “political creatures, who get political rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it.”

Prosecutors have access to free resources like collaboration with police departments. For defendants, just knowing that prosecutors have tools like mandatory minimum sentencing creates inequity in a system in which 80% of defendants are poor and must rely on an underfunded, overburdened system of public defenders. That’s where the power of the prosecutors to charge or force a plea comes into play. In Pfaff’s view it is at the local level, rather than the national, where politics enters the picture. Simply stated, prisons create jobs often in poor, rural areas. Further, prisons drive up population counts by including inmates who are, ironically, not afforded the right to vote. That leads to greater asset allocation on the state and federal level for those communities.

That many prosecutors are elected to those positions inevitably leads to conflicts of interest as well. If a prosecutor is behind a decision that puts an offender back on the street, who then reoffends in a way that garners media attention, think of Willie Horton, that can have devastating effects on their careers and futures.

Other Views on Criminal Justice Reform

For Libertarians, who value autonomy and possess a healthy skepticism about the overall role of government, Americans are being unjustly charged and convicted for things they do not view as crime. In this view, only force and fraud that harm individuals and communities should result in incarceration. They argue for increased reliance on diversion programs or reduced sentencing that promote an individual’s right to productively and actively engage in society.

Grassroots reform movements not always directly tied to political or party affiliations. These include:

  • Restoration of voting rights of convicts, reducing the disenfranchisement of minority voters
  • Continuum of care initiatives that leverage less restrictive, often treatment-based placements
  • Restorative justice programs that seek to repair offenders’ relationships with victims and communities

Student Training & Education in Public Service (STEPS) has published a new guide on careers and degrees students can purse in order to promote criminal justice reform. STEPS experts are a community of public service specialists who are dedicated to helping students and future professionals find the information they need to pursue and advance careers in the public sector.

Learn more here.

Student Training & Education in Public Service (STEPS)

Student Training & Education in Public Service (STEPS) experts are a community of public service specialists who are dedicated to helping students and future professionals find the information they need to pursue and advance careers in the public sector. 


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