Criminal justice reform prospects for 2017 are bleak, at least at the federal level. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions helped scuttle the most promising criminal justice reform package seen in years, and seems likely to continue the vintage “tough on crime” policies that created today’s mass incarceration crisis in the first place.
But all is not lost. Most criminal justice happens at the state-level. With that thought in mind, here is my list of the top criminal justice reforms that states can -- and should – act upon in 2017.
10. Stop Arresting and Incarcerating the Mentally Ill
Thousands of people are arrested, convicted and incarcerated as a direct result of mental illness. Police officers need better training, and the criminal justice system needs more dexterity, in responding to people with mental illness. One such attempt is the “Stepping Up” Initiative, a collaboration between The National Association of Counties (NACo), the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, and the American Psychiatric Foundation (APF) that aims to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in county jails. It is costly and ineffective to use the criminal justice system as a first-response to mental illness. States should develop protocols that provide treatment not prisons to the mentally ill.
9. Don’t Jail Poor People Just Because They Can’t Make Bail
Bail reform is a hot topic today – and for good reason. Thousands of people are sitting in prison awaiting trial, not because they are dangerous, but rather because they are too poor to make bail. In this last election, New Mexico voters passed a bail reform resolution, New York City recently implemented a bail reform program, and New York and Connecticut have placed bail reform on the policy agenda. States should stop imprisoning people whose only proven crime is being too poor to pay even small amounts bail.
8. Commute Overly Harsh State Sentences for Non-Violent Crimes.
President Obama has used his executive powers to commute the sentences of over 1,000 federal prison prisoners, many of whom were serving life or other severe sentences for non-violent offenses. State governors should take their cue from President Obama and commute long state sentences for non-violent offenders. Keeping people in prison because of outdated and draconian sentencing practices serves no public safety function, and costs the state money that could be better spent elsewhere. Governors have the power to fix sentencing inequities, and they should use it.
7. Implement Effective State Prisoner Reentry Initiatives
States want to make sure that once released, the formerly incarcerated stay out of prison for good. Reentry programs help people transition from prison to the community. Some states have passed reentry legislation, such as “ban the box” laws that promote employment of people with criminal records, while other states have created “reentry courts” to help guide former offenders. All states should implement research-based reentry practices that promote the safe and productive reintegration of the formerly incarcerated to our communities.
6. Stop Felony Disenfranchisement
Over 6 million Americans are unable to vote because of a felony conviction, even though the connection between the commission of a crime and the right to vote is tenuous at best. At the most extreme, 12 states – including the election battleground state of Florida - restrict voting rights even after a person has served his prison sentence and completed his probation or parole. States should restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, particularly to those who are no longer incarcerated. People who return to the community after serving their sentence should be allowed to make their voices heard.
5. Ban the Use of Solitary Confinement
Just this month, New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to reform the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey’s state prison. New Jersey’s comprehensive legislation would have banned solitary confinement for vulnerable populations, limited its use to no more than 15 consecutive days (and no more than 20 days in a 60 day period), and provided daily monitoring of those being held in isolation. Solitary confinement is traumatizing, dehumanizing and often causes permanent harm that makes our communities less safe. Even though Christie blew his opportunity to make New Jersey a leader in solitary confinement reform, other states can and should embrace reform.
4. Promote Community Policing and Improve Police-Community Relations
Relations between the police and communities are more strained than ever. When police personally know the people they are tasked to serve and protect, the police are able to make better, life-and-death, split second decisions. States should invest in community policing programs that work to promote community relationships between the police and the people they serve.
3. Better Fund Public Defender Officers
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the effective assistance of counsel. Too many poor people – particularly poor people of color –receive inadequate legal representation by lawyers who are grossly overworked and underpaid. The indigent defense crisis is real, and results in unreliable outcomes for the poorest among us. We need to increase funding to public defenders, and increase access to justice for all.
2. Abolish the Death Penalty
In this last election, California and Oklahoma voted to retain the death penalty, while Nebraska voted to bring back the death penalty after banning it just one year earlier. These votes, however, do not change the reality that capital punishment is prohibitively expensive, is biased by race and by class, and could result in the execution of an innocent person. In the last decade alone, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico have abolished capital punishment, bringing the total of states with no death penalty to 19. Ending capital punishment is the fiscally and morally right thing to do, and reform at the state level is the most effective path to abolition.
1. Free the Wrongly Convicted, Innocent People from Prison
Nearly 2,000 people have been exonerated since 1988. That number reflects only the tip of the innocence iceberg. Many more people are wrongly convicted who have not yet – and may never be able to -- establish their actual innocence. States can reduce wrongful convictions by addressing the major inadequacies of our criminal justice system. Identifying and releasing innocent people from state prisons should be a priority: a criminal justice system that wrongly incarcerates the innocent is no system of justice at all.