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What the REFORM Alliance's victory means for criminal justice reform

What the REFORM Alliance's victory means for criminal justice reform
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As California faces the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia plans to review coronavirus vaccine independently OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds | Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires | Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires MORE (D) has responded by ushering in a number of criminal justice reforms, including changes to the systems of adult probation, juvenile justice and policing. 

The reforms will effectively reduce incarceration, save taxpayer money and refine the attention of overburdened probation officers. They’re a welcome transformation of state law.

Specifically, AB1950 would reduce probationary periods from three years to one for misdemeanors and five years to two for most felonies. According to the REFORM Alliance, violations of California’s probation and parole system cost the state about $2 billion per year. Furthermore, over $200 million of those dollars are spent incarcerating people for “technical violations” and “victimless crimes.” These are savings that could easily be directed instead towards justice reinvestment programs — programs that are designed, in principle, to reduce long-run recidivism. 

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Reforms like this one are not without bipartisan support. The coalition of organizations supporting these types of reforms includes the Law Enforcement Action Partnership as well as the likes of #Cut50 and the ACLU, and the REFORM Alliance. There’s ample reason for progressives to support these reforms, as they’d effectively reduce incarceration — the end goal for many on the left. But there are also a litany of reasons that these reforms might enjoy support on the right as well.

Marc A. Levin, the chief of policy and innovation for Right on Crime, noted some of these: “AB1950 will right-size government consistent with research showing that the vast majority of reoffending occurs soon after someone is placed on probation,” he told me, adding as an advantage that it would likely “allow limited probation resources to focus more on those who remain on probation, resulting in more manageable caseloads and better access to treatment interventions.”

After all, the right has a vested interest in promoting public safety and maintaining fidelity to taxpayers’ interest. Limiting probationary periods will achieve both goals. It will reduce the burden of probation officers, allowing them to direct their attention to more substantive cases. And in terms of fiscal conservatism, since probation funding is directly tied to the number of people monitored, probation limits will lead to a reduced need for probation funding. Nearly one-quarter of California’s incarcerated population are behind bars due to probation and parole violations. Simply missing an appointment or testing positive for drugs can result in a return to prison. A justice system that professes to care for the interests of the at-risk and marginalized cannot afford to incarcerate its citizens over petty infractions. 

Probation and parole systems in our country began with noble intentions. With roots in English criminal law, they found initial use in the United States as a matter of giving defendants a second chance. Yet today they have, in many ways, become the very correctional institutions they were designed to replace. Returning citizens walk on eggshells to avoid imprisonment, and any small mistake can result in more prison time. Thus the system has created a kind of second class citizenship.

Rather than functioning as a critical piece of our criminal justice system, our system of probation and parole has often resulted in surveillance, repression and government control. These systems are geared toward intensive supervision when, ideally, they should be aimed at rehabilitation. Individuals under probation are typically expected to seek and maintain gainful employment, participate in programming, and, in some circumstances, avoid alcohol/drug use. The penalty for failure to comply is imprisonment. 

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As rapper Meek Mill found out, the system is incredibly unforgiving. He was arrested in Philadelphia as a 19-year-old on gun and drug charges. Until last year, he spent basically his entire adult life under the system of probation and supervision. He had the misfortune of dealing with a judge who extended his parole time and who threatened him with imprisonment (over driving his dirtbike without a helmet and popping a wheelie). Although the charges were eventually dropped, his case illustrated much of what was wrong with the system. 

Luckily for Meek Mill, he has been met with some measure of vindication. By partnering alongside hip-hop artist Jay-Z and CNN personality and criminal justice reformer Van Jones, he has, in conjunction with the REFORM Alliance, been able to help successfully pass meaningful criminal justice reform. 

These reforms are crucial today. In the pandemic era, prisoners are among the most vulnerable populations. Allowing for a system that cycles ex-prisoners back into prison does no good. 

As California and the U.S. at large continue to suffer from the COVID-19 crisis, reforms like Newsom’s alleviate some of the suffering. Let’s hope more states follow suit. 

Brian Bensimon is an author whose work appears in the Washington Examiner, Orange County Register, and the Austin American-Statesman. He has published works on topics including criminal justice, surveillance, civil liberties and the death penalty. Follow him on Twitter @BrianBensimon.