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In 2020, we need bold ideas for criminal justice reform too


As the 2020 election quickly approaches, Democratic candidates are presenting bold ideas about a wide variety of issues including climate change, inequality, national paid leave, filibuster reform, student loans, and Medicare for All. Few ideas are too ambitious for the base, even though many would require major structural changes to American institutions and civic life. 

Then, there’s the issue of justice. Criminal justice reform and mass incarceration get talked about, correctly, as racial justice issues that need to be addressed, but no one has proposed radical changes to how we approach crime and punishment in America. It’s time for 2020 candidates to think as boldly about criminal justice as they are about health care and climate change.

{mosads}Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) “Next Step Act” currently comes closest to a bold proposal, taking on police officer training, the conditions of confinement, and expungement procedures. Yet, even this proposal includes the sentencing reforms and reentry assistance proposals we’re used to seeing. Our collective focus, and the focus of popular criminal justice reform laws like the First STEP Act, remains on a late stage of criminal justice contact: incarceration. 

Prison incarceration is, of course, a consequential event, but many more millions of people engage with our inefficient and repressive criminal justice system—through arrests, misdemeanor convictions, parole and probation, the bail industry, and the accumulation of fines and fees. People don’t have to be sentenced to prison to have life-altering interactions with the criminal justice system, and our leaders need to think about these experiences too. In 2016, for example, 70 percent of the roughly 646,000 Americans in local jails on any given day had not been convicted of anything, largely remaining in jail due to their inability to make bail or because they violated the conditions of probation and parole.

Arrests also have outsized impact on Americans. While more than 2 million Americans are incarcerated every year, twelve million Americans are arrested every year. New findings show an explosion of arrests of young black adults in recent decades, and other data shows that between 30 and 41 percent of people are arrested in or before young adulthood. The tensions and police aggression at play here measurably contribute to cynicism that risks weakening teens’ deference to law and legal authorities. An outsized role for police in our lives and the lives of our children, it seems, tears at our social fabric rather than strengthening it. We should ask ourselves and our leaders why so many things are against the law and why we expect police officers to intervene so often, especially with youth.

Presidential candidates should also consider how much our criminal justice system impacts lives after someone has served time. In 2016, almost 7 million people were under some form of correctional supervision, such as parole or probation. The most common reentry proposals are aimed at improving the labor market prospects of the formerly incarcerated. We applaud these efforts, but people who lack health care and a stable home may struggle to find and keep a job. Discussions of health care and housing policy that ignore the formerly incarcerated ignore a population with the most significant health care problems and housing instability in the country.  

President Trump often lauds his bipartisan “First Step Act” which revised federal sentencing laws and expanded reentry and early release programs. While many Democratic hopefuls supported the bill, and Trump has even announced a “Second Step Act” to come, we should aspire to a different and more forward-thinking direction for future legislation. Presidential candidates who want to think boldly about criminal justice reform should tackle fair sentencing, yes – but they must just as urgently acknowledge the many other ways criminal justice reflects and creates inequalities. 

By focusing on reforming incarceration only, we are obscuring a broader landscape of pain for millions of Americans. To truly begin on a path toward criminal justice reform, we need our leaders to think in terms of new deals, guarantees, and sweeping legislation that could impact more Americans, like they do on climate and health care. The type of country we want to have depends on these decisions.   

Professors Sara Wakefield and Kristin Turney are editors of “Criminal Justice Contact and Inequality,” a journal published by the Russell Sage Foundation. 

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