As More Groups Acknowledge Need for Criminal Justice Reform, We Must Also Undo the Damages of the Past

Nearly every group responsible for creating the now politically tenuous reality of mass incarceration is offering themselves up as the pivotal character in the national narrative shift toward criminal justice reform. On Wednesday, 130 prominent police chiefs from around the country -- among them NYPD's William J. Bratton -- launched a new initiative to reduce the prison rolls and to create alternatives to arrest. Last week Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance debuted his own national program, the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, centering prosecutors as the group best positioned to unravel the system they have for so long championed. All of this follows bipartisan federal legislation, sentencing commission reforms, and public disavowals from key contributors to the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave localities big bucks for locking people up and building new prisons. Nearly everyone agrees that through racially discriminatory law enforcement overreach and a particularly American zest for punishment we have "too many people behind bars who don't belong there," as the chiefs put it.

However, if we can all agree that the system has treated some unfairly, why are these public mea culpas not accompanied by a plan to make whole the people who have been unjustly swept into the system? When U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in 2013 that the stop-and-frisk tactics of the NYPD were discriminatory and illegal, the program was curtailed, but the fruits of the previous illegal practices -- hundreds of thousands of summonses and arrests for low-level violations and crimes -- were not thrown out. Instead, thousands of people in New York City continue to be dragged into court years later, where they are prosecuted by the same people who today acknowledge they might have been done wrong.

Justice does not arrive simply by acknowledging mistakes and empowering the same people who implemented the corrupt system we are now bemoaning as the central agents of reform. We must have reparations for those harmed by destructive, discriminatory past practices and employ actual policy mechanisms, such as racial impact statements, to ensure the errors of the past are not repeated in the future.