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Reforming Criminal Justice in America

posted in: State of the World | 0

System FailureAs 2010 comes to a close we are beginning to see some cracks in the walls of the prison industrial complex.  A Christmas gift this year includes an opportunity to get caught up on my reading, writing, and sharing of notable pieces relative to criminal justice reform in America.  I reference a few of my favorite blog authors and news sites as evidence for the urgency needed to sustain the momentum of reforms implemented in the past year; and to draw attention to the absolute failures in a system that should be protecting our freedoms, not destroying them.  Fueled by the political expediency of “get tough on crime” policies, America is now characterized as Incarceration Nation.

The epic failure of America’s 40 year “war on drugs” is dissected in an upcoming issue of  The  Nation. Thanks go out to Sentencing Law & Policy for previewing this issue.  From the article entitled Rebalancing Drug Policy comes this introductory paragraph from the editors of The  Nation:

Nearly forty years after President Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” it is painfully clear that the nation’s approach to drug policy is counterproductive and cruel.  Shifting our priorities toward a more sensible approach — one that offers treatment rather than punishment for addicts, and that recognizes the deep injustice of mass incarceration — seems like a daunting task.  But as the writers in this forum suggest, we have all the answers and resources we need.  If ever there was a time to say enough is enough, it’s now.   — The Editors

And from the article entitled Decriminalizing Poverty comes the following concluding paragraphs:

Our best research shows that criminal justice reform must be buttressed by drug treatment, education and employment. These measures complement one another. A less punitive drug control regime acknowledges relapse as a likely stage on the road to recovery. Keeping people out of prison can carry a steep social cost unless they’re meaningfully occupied. In this context, school and work are as important for the stability and routine they provide as for the opportunities they expand.

The drug war made an enemy of the poor. A successful ceasefire must do more than lift the burden of criminal punishment. It must begin to restore order and predictability to economic and family life, reducing vulnerability not just to drugs but to the myriad insecurities that characterize American poverty.

The failures associated with the America’s crime policies overlap every aspect of social policy and have been largely responsible for the out of control spending dynamics at all levels of government.  As this decade comes to a conclusion, criminal justice reform is gaining additional traction on the heels of crack sentencing disparities (which still exist), state (and federal) budget deficits, and public acknowledgement of the failed policies which have resulted in unprecedented prison growth.  Conservatives are finally joining the discussion, as evidenced by Right on Crime, which portrays themselves as “the conservative case for reform.”  This is how the RoC characterizes the problem:

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

The RoC identifies nineteen states with active reform movements underway to reform the criminal justice system. Their website includes state specific information links and is supported by key leaders on the conservative side of the political aisle.  The arrival of RoC and conservative acceptance of their failed policies may be indicative of a major shift in social policy that has not been seen since the civil rights movement.

Children of Incarcerated Parents

From the Urban Institute comes Children of Incarcerated Parents which provides researchers and practitioners with another view of the collateral consequences of mass incarceration.  Thanks go out to The Crime Report for profiling this book.  The publisher offers the following description:

For the nearly 2 million children in the United States whose parents are in prison, caretaking necessary for optimal development is disrupted. These vulnerable youth—a population that has shot up 80 percent in the last 20 years—are more likely to experience learning difficulties, poor health, and substance abuse, and eventually be incarcerated themselves. Children of Incarcerated Parents integrates a diverse literature, pulling together rigorous scholarship from criminology, sociology, law, psychiatry, social work, nursing, psychology, human development, and family studies. Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers will find here new research and policies that will improve these children’s life chances.

Also from The Crime Report comes this profile of a TBI patient involved in the criminal justice system.  It is the story of a man who had the good fortune to encounter a compassionate judge who is more interested in solutions than simply passing judgment on a man’s redemptive qualities.

Had it not been for a judge interested in doing the right thing, rather than the easy thing, Zack would likely have ended up in jail or prison, where he would likely not do well given his impulsivity and poor frustration tolerance… How many Zack’s are there in jails and prisons?  How can society get them needed care, treatment, and rehabilitation in order to avoid these terrible outcomes?

TBI, short for Traumatic Brain Injury, was first identified in conjunction with sports injuries and is gaining exposure as a consequence of war.  Men and women returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are increasingly diagnosed with TBI in addition to PTSD, many of these veterans struggle with re-entry in the civilian populace and often find themselves embroiled in the criminal justice system.  An excellent resource for information related with TBI is Traumatic Brain Injury.com, “the impact on a person and his or her family can be devastating. The purpose of this site is to educate and empower caregivers and survivors of traumatic brain injuries.”

And finally, from one of my absolute favorite blogs at Simple Justice comes the story of a high school student in prison. The post, entitled A Christmas Present, chronicles the plight of a teenager being in held in an adult detention center in California for videotaping a campus cop assaulting a student for smoking.  The teen, charged with felony crimes, could not make bail but his story has received attention from community members who were willing to intervene on his behalf.  As Scott Greenfield writes, “Enter Google software engineer, Neil Fraser.”

Fraser wrote: “I am in a position to post bail for Jeremy so that he may spend Christmas with his family.”

Fraser explains, “When I was growing up, I spent several years in Germany — a country still traumatized by the Holocaust. One of the things I learned was that bad things can only happen if good people do nothing. I consider myself to be a good person, so I had no choice but to act when I saw something like this happening.”

Fraser also sent the family $1,500 for Marks’ defense attorney costs, which was matched by Google.

Scott’s piece on Simple Justice includes links to other news sources about the story.  It also highlights the necessity of reform in America’s criminal justice system.  Make no mistake of the fact that the “war on drugs” and the corresponding “war on crime” are being waged against the American People and their are generations of casualties in our schools, jails, and prisons who will attest to this fact.

These epic failures have nowIn the Name of Justice set the stage for major social and political changes as we begin a new decade.  At the forefront of this movement are Libertarian activists and think-tanks like The Cato Institute who have been for advocating criminal justice reform at all levels of government.  In the Name of Justice, a book published by The Cato Institute, explores the necessity for criminal justice reform.  Written by judges and legal scholars, they explore the state of affairs int he criminal justice system today and “offer compelling examinations of key issues, including suicide terrorism, drug legalization, and the vast reach of federal criminal liability.”  The Cato website includes the following description about this book:

America’s criminal codes are so voluminous that they now bewilder not only the average citizen but also the average lawyer. Our courthouses are so clogged that there is no longer adequate time for trials. And our penitentiaries are overflowing with prisoners. In fact, America now has the highest per capita prison population in the world. This situation has many people wondering whether the American criminal justice system has become dysfunctional.

It is men like Mark Frasier, companies like Google, conservative groups like Right on Crime, and Libertarian groups like The Cato Institute that make significant and lasting changes possible as we enter the next decade.  We have both the time and the opportunity for reform before us now, will you take action to support reforming a failed system?