Reforming criminal justice: The real impact of a law & order administration
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As the Trump administration prepares for inauguration, journalists and policy advocates are scrambling to figure out what the administration will mean for their areas of concern. Given the president-elect’s “law and order” stance and pick of Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE for Attorney General, those of us who research and advocate for criminal justice reform are apprehensive. Is such reform “dead?”, or is the “prognosis” just “not positive?” Some say Trump is likely to scrap the Justice Department’s plan to phase out private prisons, while others hold cautious optimism, noting the momentum of state and local reform and the limits of federal power to impact local criminal justice systems.

However, the problem with a law and order administration is that it will undermine the very necessary efforts to change criminal justice system culture. Even if reformers can convince legislators, governors, and city officials to continue to embrace reform policies, front-line staff – police officers, assistant district attorneys, probation officers, and prison guards – will have to implement them.

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After decades of a “war on drugs,” rhetoric about incorrigible criminals, and policies that prioritize long prison sentences, the culture of criminal justice spaces – police departments, courtrooms, probation offices, and prison blocks – is dehumanizing and harsh. Yet the tides are shifting. Prisons are expensive. Crime rates are down. The political advantage of tough justice is waning.

And Black Lives Matter and other organizations have called attention to the deadly excesses of the system. As a result, states and localities, with the support of foundations and research organizations, are undertaking significant reforms. For change to work, however, officers will need to change not only what they are doing, but how they think about, and therefore, treat the offender, the defendant, the probationer, or the prisoner.

For example, the agreement between the Department of Justice and the City of Ferguson, Mo., requires the city to end discriminatory police stops. Besides the thorny issue of what policies should be put in place, city officials are likely to face resistance due to an “us vs. them” police culture and officers’ experiential ideas about who is suspect or threatening. Or consider the assessment tools many state legislatures mandate probation and parole officers use to decide which criminal defendants need more programming or supervision. To be effective, probation and parole officers will need to eschew their culturally-based intuition about which offenders they can trust.

Then, there are prisons, the criminal justice institution I know best in my work as a sociologist at Northwestern University, where I study the growth of mass incarceration. In a visit to one Florida prison, I saw what officers referred to as “dog cages”-- outdoor spaces, indeed cages, where prisoners exercised two hours a week. The same culture that allows prisoners to be called “dogs” has contributed to a record number of prisoner deaths and widespread prisoner abuse in Florida prisons. Similarly, a recent investigation revealed name-calling, beatings, and over-use of disciplinary measures in New York state prisons. Those same officers will have to reduce their use of solitary confinement under the terms of an agreement between the ACLU and the state. Simply put, reform policy is up against a prison culture that treats people horribly.

Change-minded administrators’ work potentially just got harder with the election of Trump–  their message that citizens, defendants, probationers and prisoners need to be treated with dignity, that offenders deserve second chances, and that harsh prisons are counterproductive are already at odds with how many officers have been operating and thinking for decades. Officers for whom the election of a law and order, pro-police President is reassuring.

Indeed, those that protect us at home need to be supported and trained adequately. But a president who says racially discriminatory and unconstitutional policing is acceptable, who implies certain groups are predisposed to criminal behavior, vows to expand mandatory minimum sentences for people who re-enter the country illegally, and appoints a drug warrior as attorney general will only reinforce the punitive culture of our criminal justice institutions.

Policy reforms already in-progress at state and local levels are without a doubt incredibly important, and may bring cultural change. States efforts to scale back use of solitary confinement, for example, sends a message that caging someone 24 hours a day is inhumane. But unless we shift the wider culture of our criminal justice institutions, solitary confinement may simply be replaced with another dehumanizing practice.

While criminal justice reform advocates may be inclined to quietly work toward change in their own jurisdictions and ignore the noise of the Trump administration, to counteract his messages, criminal justice reform advocates must create strong counter-narratives and messaging that stress ineffectiveness of current policies, the human right to dignity, and parsimony. Further, we must support investigative reporting and social science research that follows the process of criminal justice reform in order to document what works to change culture in the places where it matters the most.

Heather Schoenfeld, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.