Justice Reform, At Long Last

Decades after the start of the so-called "tough on crime" era, the U.S. slowly seems to be inching away from the failed policies that have made it the world's largest incarcerator (the U.S. has five percent of the world's population and about 25 percent of the world's prisoners).

Last year, in an important speech, Attorney General Eric Holder laid out a set of promising reforms at the federal level, including doing away with draconian mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. In January, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act, the biggest federal drug sentencing overhaul in decades. It lowers mandatory minimums for some drug crimes, giving judges more discretion on sentencing. This month, AG Holder called for eliminating the barriers to voting that disenfranchise millions of Americans with prior felony convictions on their records.

There's good news at the state and local levels as well, with a handful of states -- such as Texas and New York -- closing prisons by investing in treatment and community-based supervision, and New York City moving away from discriminatory "stop and frisk" practices. A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice also shows that at least 29 states have taken steps to roll back mandatory sentences since 2000.

For those of us who consider criminal justice reform to be one of the leading civil rights issues of our time, these are hopeful signs that we might be entering a new era. We are no longer turning a blind eye to the damage being done to our communities by an out-of-control criminal justice system, or ignoring the pervasive racial bias that undermines the very legitimacy of the system itself.

Racial disparities deeply persist in our justice system at all levels, from how we treat victims to whom we arrest and send to jails and prisons. Victims of violent crime are more likely to be Latino or African American, and nearly half of all homicide victims are Black men and boys. But the perception that our young men are dangerous, rather than vulnerable, is one that is reinforced daily by our justice system.

Nationally, 25 percent of those behind bars are there for drug offenses, and the racial disparities in drug enforcement are staggering. While African Americans use and sell drugs at lower rates than whites, they are are incarcerated for drug charges at 10 times the rate of whites.

Until now, it has been easiest to throw up our hands in the face of such disparity and the deep ways in which our criminal justice system has been broken. But the tide may be beginning to turn, and we need to keep up the momentum at the federal, state and local levels.

More states, including California, must continue to shift from an "incarceration only" approach and toward the evidence-based programs and services that have been proven to actually reduce crime and racial injustice in the system, while also saving precious taxpayer dollars. For example, education and job-focused programs like San Francisco's Back on Track program and New York's Bard Prison Initiative have dramatically reduced re-offense rates to less than 10 percent, creating pathways to productive lives for the sons, daughters, fathers and mothers caught up in the criminal justice system, at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

States also can continue to lead the way as champions of sentencing reform. In California and other states, decades-old penal code sections treat non-violent drug crimes as felonies, which means people end up with real time behind bars and lifelong consequences, instead of getting the addiction treatment they need. We can dig deep into those state penal codes and rid them of the legacy of the failed War on Drugs. For example, states could safely reduce the penalty for simple possession of tiny quantities of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, resulting in big savings in prison costs and addressing one of the major drivers of racial injustice.

Let's continue to close the door on the ineffective policies that have handcuffed us for too long, and embrace fresh thinking and proven approaches that can ensure real safety and justice for our communities.