The US has barely scratched the surface on criminal justice reform


In these highly polarized times, our nation is awash in loud and public fights about immigration, health care, global warming, and other daunting challenges. Criminal justice used to be on that list of divisive topics. But now Americans of nearly every political and demographic perspective agree – we need a public safety approach that works better and costs less.

As current and former governors who prioritize greater justice and safety, we believe this historic moment carries great opportunity, but even greater responsibility. We must ensure that our momentum does not slip away, and we must push forward with nonpartisan purpose toward a criminal justice system worthy of our nation.

Our states of Kentucky and California are very different, both geographically and demographically. But we and other leaders across the country have coalesced around the principle that while people must be held accountable for breaking our laws, we cannot build our way to a safer society with ever-more prisons.

In California, that truth has driven changes that have reduced the prison population by 25 percent while keeping crime down. Because of recent reforms, most Californians convicted of nonviolent offenses now serve their time in county jails, while people in prison who commit to change by completing programs and complying with rules can earn time credits to shorten their sentences. The state also now requires judges, rather than prosecutors, to decide whether juveniles are tried as adults and replaced cash bail with a system that treats rich and poor equally.

Kentucky has strengthened support for those leaving prison through a new reentry division that equips each incarcerated person with an individualized roadmap for community reintegration. Other important changes include expanded drug treatment, passage of a law allowing people convicted of certain felonies to clear their records and legislation barring state government from arbitrarily denying jobs and professional licenses based on a prior criminal conviction.

But while several dozen states and the federal government have made laudable progress, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all that must be done. Taxpayers spend a quarter trillion dollars per year to arrest, try, sentence, and supervise the 7 million adults behind bars or on probation and parole. Yet return-to-prison rates remain high, too many communities struggle with violence and substance abuse, and new technologies are increasing our vulnerability to cybercrime and other threats.

Fortunately, we know a lot more about what works in criminal justice than we did 40 years ago, when our nation began an incarceration boom that has exacted a heavy toll, in both fiscal and human costs. While there are no magic bullets, research has spotlighted effective strategies to stop the cycle of reoffending and better equip people leaving prison to resume stable lives.

But putting reforms in place – and deciding which initiatives to prioritize going forward – takes leadership, and that’s why we’re joining a new think tank and membership organization, the Council on Criminal Justice.

Launched the week July 23, the Council captures the energy and brainpower of some of the most respected criminal justice experts and innovators in the country. By serving as an incubator for policy in the field, the Council will build on our historic opportunity by generating authoritative guidance on what actions, now and in the future, will bring Americans safety and justice.

We’ve witnessed the power of shifting political winds, and we know that, particularly with criminal justice reform, we must double down on our efforts and guard against backward-looking proposals that are borne of emotion or recycle failed ideas of the past.

By focusing on facts and finding common ground through this collaborative approach, we can preserve and accelerate progress on an issue that once profoundly divided us. Our nation deserves no less.

Jerry Brown served four terms as governor of California and is a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the Council on Criminal Justice. Matt Bevin is governor of Kentucky and is a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the Council on Criminal Justice. 

Tags Criminal justice reform Prison reform

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