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The Future of Criminal Justice Reform Is Bleak

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By Christopher Zoukis

The last decade has seen a seismic shift in social and political attitudes regarding the criminal justice system. There seemed to be a growing consensus that crime control and carceral policies were not working as intended. Even those not fully in agreement on these issues recognized that these policies were costing an incredible amount of money and lives.

Sentencing reform bills were introduced in both the House and Senate. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a directive to U.S. Attorneys not to bring charges that require mandatory minimums against low-level drug offenders. And President Obama engaged in an effort to use his own power to reduce the unfairness in federal sentencing. As of November 23, President Obama had granted over 1,000 sentence commutations.

But with the election of Donald J. Trump as the next president of the United States, criminal justice reforms are in jeopardy. Trump's appointment of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to the Office of Attorney General has made that quite clear.

Sessions was vocally opposed to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which would have lowered federal mandatory minimums and reduced incarceration rates. Specifically, Sessions stated that the bill "would release thousands of violent felons and endanger millions of Americans whose safety is increasingly threatened by rising crime rates."

But are crime rates really rising? Statistics and research say that they are not. Gun crime and violent crime are at lower levels than they were a decade ago and "crime rates have fallen to lows not seen since the 1960s."

"I was there when we had the revolving doors in the '60s and '70s," said Sessions in 2015. "We, as a nation, turned against that. We've created a system that requires certainty and punishments, swifter trials. And the result is a very great drop in the crime rate."

There is little evidence that the policies and practices that have resulted in the nation's obscene incarceration rate -- one in 100 American adults is locked up in a local, state or federal prison or jail -- actually reduce crime, however. In fact, according to Marie Gottschalk in her book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics there is "[a] pile of evidence-based research that the relationship between punishment practices and public safety is a loose one at best."

A 2014 National Research Council study came to a similar conclusion. The report concluded that despite popular beliefs, "[the] increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime, but the magnitude is highly uncertain, and the results of most studies suggest it was unlikely to have been large."

If the goal of President Trump and his proposed Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a fair and effective criminal justice policy, then both need to substantially change their past "law and order" positions in favor of smart on crime, not simply tough on crime, policies.

But we are unlikely to see a progressive criminal justice policy, especially one that involves reform of any kind, from a Trump administration. Despite the evidence that uncompromising law and order policies that lock people up for longer and longer periods don't actually reduce crime, that's likely what we will see from an administration that values perception much higher than reality.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and

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