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We cannot afford to squander this chance for criminal justice reform

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Recently we’ve seen two presidential forums focused exclusively on the subject of criminal justice reform. The candidates for president are releasing detailed plans on how to address this critical issue. 

This is unprecedented. Finally, America’s broken criminal justice system and the urgent need for reform is front and center in our presidential campaign process, where it should have been for the past 30 years. 

Now that all eyes are on this issue, let’s make sure we don’t squander the opportunity.  

On Oct. 25, 10 Democratic presidential candidates joined a two-day discussion on criminal justice reform at Benedict College, a historically black college in South Carolina. President Trump also spoke at the event, receiving an award for his role in the First Step Act. The next day, several candidates traveled to the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to participate in a JusticeVotes 2020 Town Hall, organized and led by formerly incarcerated criminal justice reform leaders.   

These events are a promising sign that decades of work by thousands of advocates are paying off.  

The problem is vast, impacting nearly every facet of American life. The number of people incarcerated has grown by 500 percent over the past 40 years, to over 2 million people. The United States leads the world with the largest prison population and incarceration rate of any country.  

With people of color representing more than 60 percent of those in prison, the huge growth in incarceration affects some parts of our community more than others. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Latino men are 2.7 times as likely. Women’s incarceration has grown at double the rate of men’s in recent decades. 

The huge prison population growth also affects Americans’ pocketbooks, and constrains our ability to make critical investments. For example, in California, since the 1980s, the prison budget rose to $12 billion a year, and the state built 22 prisons — but only one state university.  

Yet, in the past 10 years, important changes in public opinion have emerged. Most Americans now agree that the United States must end its overuse of incarceration. But even with intensive reform efforts, the number of people in federal and state prisons has inched down only about 8 percent since its peak in 2009, and 2.1 million adults are still incarcerated — about four times pre-1980s levels. The financial cost of these ongoing, historically unique highs is a staggering $80 billion every year. The human cost — even worse — is incalculable.

It will take an unprecedented effort to turn things around, and we cannot miss this opportunity for transformative change. There are three keys to turning this moment of attention into change: 

  • Substantially reducing the number of people in the criminal justice system; 
  • Dramatically cutting corrections spending with resources channeled instead to communities in desperate need; and 
  • Fashioning an effective new approach to public safety that lifts those who are most harmed and least helped by current policies and practices. 

The case for the first two goals — reducing incarceration and spending — couldn’t be simpler.  Crime is at the lowest levels we’ve seen in generations, yet spending on prisons and the justice system remains stubbornly high.  

The third change demands more consideration, however, because it requires reimagining our public safety system to replace the current, narrowly punitive model with a comprehensive system that advances shared safety, supports recovery from harm, and makes redemption real.   

This demands investing in a shared safety infrastructure — for example, expanding mental health treatment, drug abuse treatment, and diversion and housing programs for chronically homeless populations involved in crime. A sincere commitment to helping crime survivors requires  providing more aggressive, targeted support to those who, according to statistics, are most likely to experience crime and not be served by current practices. Low-income, young people of color receive little to no support to counter the trauma they experience from violent crime. 

Finally, since we know that most people with justice system involvement move beyond past mistakes, we must create real opportunities for their progression by eliminating the stigma and obstacles to finding work, housing and countless other benefits of society.

These are the kinds of bold changes that are available to us in this moment of unprecedented hope and opportunity. In the coming months and years, let us be guided by the words of Norris Henderson, a formerly incarcerated trailblazer who was an organizer and moderator of the Philadelphia event: “I applaud people who want to step up now and fix [the criminal justice system],” he said recently. “But we really got to fix it.  We can’t put a Band-aid on it.” 

Robert Rooks is the co-founder and vice president of Alliance for Safety and Justice. Follow him on Twitter @RobertRooks5.

Tags Criminal justice reform Donald Trump Incarceration Law enforcement Penology Prison

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