Criminal Justice Reform

by Jared Feldman

 

The JCPA mission statement calls for a “just American society,” recognizing that the Jewish community has “an ethical imperative to assure that America remains a country wedded to the Bill of Rights and committed to the rule of law, a nation whose institutions continue to function as a public trust.”  Nowhere is this goal and imperative more manifest than in our system of justice and, more specifically, in our criminal justice system.

 

The operation of a morally and legally sound criminal justice system–one of the most profound responsibilities of any government–involves the protection of individuals from harm and the punishment of offenders, each of these goals being necessary to provide a sense of security and justice for all Americans.  But the issues are more than philosophical and ethical pronouncements. Pragmatically, we recognize that achieving these goals must be accomplished in a way that maximizes the societal benefits and at the same time minimizes costs inuring from different approaches to criminal justice. We believe, and current evidence supports the view that reasoned efforts can and do accomplish both goals.

 

Justice in America is too often delayed, too often denied.  Court dockets are overloaded, the public defender system is underfunded, racial disparities permeate the system. 

 

Between 1987 and 2007, the national prison population nearly tripled.  There are now more than 2.3 million Americans in jails and prisons, more than 1 in 100 American adults, an all-time high incarceration rate that far exceeds that of any other nation.  Minorities are disproportionately affected with one in nine African American males between the ages of 20 and 34 behind bars.  State governments, which are responsible for 90 percent of incarcerated adults, spend more than $50 billion a year on maintaining their prison systems.  The federal government spends another $5 billion. Corrections spending has grown at a much greater rate than higher education spending.  Many of those imprisoned are for non-violent offenses, often for lengthy periods required by inflexible, mandatory sentencing rules. 

 

The JCPA believes:

 

  • Criminal Justice Reform, at the federal, state, and local level, can result in a more effective and efficient criminal justice system. Reforms to all phases of our criminal justice system, based on sound data, can re-establish public faith and trust in the system, minimize mistakes, reduce recidivism, and conserve resources.  They include improvements in the areas of prevention, investigations, prosecution, corrections, education, training, and re-entry.   There are economic benefits in moving a substantial segment of the population toward productivity who would have otherwise faced insurmountable barriers to employment and re-integration after release from incarceration. 

 

  • Scores of post-conviction exonerations remind us that our system can and does convict innocent people. On both the state and federal levels, reforms are needed to ensure accountability for conduct and performance of police and prosecutors.  Police-community coordination can help improve the ability of law enforcement to provide security to the public.  Local law enforcement agencies should receive appropriate resources and have clearly defined procedures to ensure accuracy from the investigative, identification, and interrogation phases through post-conviction proceedings. 

 

  • Access to competent counsel is both constitutionally mandated and essential to prevent miscarriages of justice. The inadequacy of the current system too often results in justice denied.  Appropriate funding of our courts and the public defender system, including access to DNA evidence where appropriate, can help ensure that justice is neither delayed nor denied, as when the outcomes of criminal proceedings hinge arbitrarily on a defendant’s finances. 

 

  • Sentencing reforms can help ensure that the punishment fits the crime. These include increased judicial discretion as opposed to mandatory minimum sentences or similar provisions.  Alternatives to incarceration, trial or prosecution, such as community program diversion, electronic monitoring, drug courts (which have served as a model),    mandatory drug counseling, and other types of treatment for mental health issues should be used more frequently.  Such alternatives, including placement, treatment, and rehabilitation, can also yield more citizens paying taxes, victim restitution, and child support, and better assist these individuals in becoming to productive members of society.

 

  • Juvenile justice systems should hold youthful offenders accountable for their actions but should also recognize that juveniles possess a great potential for change and rehabilitation. Juveniles are often subjected to avoidable negative influences and psychological damage through the justice system.  Increased use of alternatives to incarceration, including community program diversion, special education, suitable placement, treatment, rehabilitation, mediation and restitution may enhance the likelihood that youth will grow into responsible, self-respecting productive adults.  

 

  • Once individuals are imprisoned, society’s interest during their detention and incarceration, in addition to punishment, should be to reduce recidivism by, among other things, enhancing their skills to deal with and contribute to society upon release. Our priorities should be to instill the tools and motivation to live a law-abiding life in those most likely to run afoul of the law, using the period of their removal from society to increase the chances of successful reintegration into lawful society.  Prisons should serve their deterrent and rehabilitative purposes and not exacerbate societal ills.  Lack of adequate rehabilitation programming, medical and behavioral health services, substance abuse treatment, educational opportunities, and family contact, tragically neglect the opportunity to prepare individuals for productive participation in society.  Prison conditions, including serious overcrowding and pervasive sexual violence, can impose hardships and dire consequences more egregious than those imposed by our laws.  These conditions may constitute human rights violations that should be examined and addressed.

 

  • Adequate funding for and increased access to re-entry and parole programs can assist the successful reintegration of former prisoners, foster public safety by reducing recidivism, and promote responsible citizenship.  Reentry planning should include   educational programs and job training, access to medical and mental health care, including substance abuse treatment, to reduce recidivism.   Denying access to public assistance,  food stamps, and student loans to  individuals , who would otherwise qualify for these benefits, is short-sighted and counterproductive.  These programs should be provided before and after release from incarceration so as to ease transition into the workforce. Individuals serving mandatory drug related sentences should be eligible to apply for parole related programs as well as “good conduct” credits.

 

  • The restoration of voting rights to people released from prison should be supported. It may foster a sense of responsibility and help in their re-integration into society. The disenfranchisement of millions of former prisoners results in significant racial disparities among qualified voters.

 

  • Racial disparities are a tragic, undeniable, and unacceptable factor in criminal justice. Criminal justice reform requires examination of the role that racism may play at every stage and the implementation of measures to ensure the equal protection of all Americans, including training through all phases of the system, law enforcement community relations programming, and sentencing reform. (see JCPA Resolution on Race and Criminal Justice, 2001).

 

The community relations field should:

  • Educate ourselves and others about the criminal justice system and evidence based reforms that can help to reduce crime and reduce the rate of incarceration.  All interested parties need to be heard including the judiciary, the bar, law enforcement, corrections officials, victims, prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, past and present inmates;  families of people with criminal records,  and a range of other advocacy and community service organizations including ex-offender service providers, legal aid programs and faith-based community organizations and a range of other advocacy organizations including those in the faith-based community. 
  • Create coalitions among  all aspects of the criminal justice system to address these issues and prioritize solutions,
  • Generate public awareness of the  magnitude of these issues and work with public officials to seek creative redress
  • Insist that our elected officials face the harsh realities of the weaknesses in the criminal justice system
  • advocate for legislative changes and other efforts to foster and implement meaningful reforms

About the Author


Jared Feldman